Woman shaking hands with others

Whether by choice or force, we all share the experience and journey of advancing to what’s next in our professional lives. What we are moving on to—and why—no doubt affects how receptive and adaptive we will be to the change.

The sheer exhilaration of landing your dream job in a new organization makes it very easy to see your old position entirely through the rearview mirror. Friends and colleagues remain, but making a clean break is easy.

But for others, leaving an organization for which you have expended great energy, passion, and commitment is tough to do even if you are leaving of your own volition. The evidence of your contribution, after all, is everywhere. Whether it is a department you rebuilt with talented staff, a new neighborhood park, a renovated town hall, or an economic strategy that revitalized main street, your contributions are tangible and physically evident. Let’s face it: It’s hard to just close the door and walk away from the community you create through that work.

Adding to the complexity of the transition, imagine if you plan to live in the community you once managed. How do you balance your reputation and status as a “former” with the new role of being just a “resident”? How do you exercise your civic duties and rights as a resident in a way that does not undermine the colleague who now holds your former position? If you think the current manager is not making good decisions, based on your professional expertise and knowledge of the operations, what should you do?

To be clear, there are no hard and fast rules of engagement here for a member who wants to participate in their former community, whether they reside there or not. Members who no longer work for a local government must follow these two tenets from the ICMA Code of Ethics:

Tenet 1. We believe professional management is essential to efficient and democratic local government by elected officials.

Tenet 3. Demonstrate by word and action the highest standards of ethical conduct and integrity in all public, professional, and personal relationships in order that the member may merit the trust and respect of the elected and appointed officials, employees, and the public.

Of the many guidelines under Tenet 3, the one on public confidence is most relevant to this discussion: Members should conduct themselves so as to maintain public confidence in their position and profession, the integrity of their local government, and in their responsibility to uphold the public trust.

And then consider that long-held rule of engagement that seems most on point here: If you have a discussion with a colleague’s elected officials, that colleague needs to hear about it. And the preferred method of interaction is peer to peer. Don’t go around your colleague to talk with their elected officials.
Here are two real scenarios that serve to highlight why this is a very gray ethical issue.

Giving Back to the Community

A former city manager, who served the city in that role for over a decade, applied to serve on the citizens commission that provides advice on housing policy issues and funding allocations. Affordable housing has always been a challenge in the city and the now-retired manager felt that she has the time and expertise to devote to the issue.
As a courtesy, she stopped by city hall to give the current manager a head’s up. The news was received with great unease by the current manager. At first, he thought this might violate ICMA’s Code of Ethics. It does not. A member, especially one who is no longer working for a local government, can serve on an appointed board or commission even for their former employer.

He remained concerned that her involvement might impede efforts to shift the city’s approach to solving this intractable issue. Not to lay blame, but the strategies used under her watch didn’t seem to make much progress.

This seems like two sides of the same coin. Some local government organizations benefit from having former practitioners on their committees as they bring a level of knowledge that others may not have. On the flipside, it can create a situation of competing perspectives. Whose perspective and advice do you follow? The current city manager (and his or her staff) or the former, who (depending on their tenure) may carry a lot of influence in the community.

Assuming positive intent, the manager opted for a follow-up conversation where he successfully persuaded the former manager not to advance her interest in this cause from a city-related perch.

Running for Office

After serving the community for 15 years, a city manager announced his retirement, and the city commenced the search for a suitable replacement. The new city manager was approved by a unanimous vote. A month later, the former city manager entered the campaign to fill an unexpected open seat on city council.

Though rare, this is not the first time a former city or county manager sought elected public office. When it happens, generally it is not in the community they once managed, but if so, certainly not on the heels of their retirement. The ICMA Code of Ethics doesn’t require a retired member to adhere to the principle of political neutrality and is silent on the issue of what would be a suitable waiting period, if any.

The desire to continue public service in a beloved community doesn’t outweigh the impact of that decision on the organization, profession, and the new city manager. Whether good or not so, the reputation and perceived influence of anyone who holds the title of manager doesn’t evaporate when they walk out the door. Regardless of whether they leverage their former position in the campaign, will that former title garner campaign support from donors who presume an inside advantage should this candidate prevail? And if they win, what will be the impact on staff who may be challenged to support the candidate’s donors as they officially engage with the city?

After years of serving as a nonpartisan, politically neutral professional, what impact does the campaign have on the image of the profession? Imagine being the new city manager only to have the former occupant now be one of your supervisors.

Things to Consider

As noted, the rules of engagement for the former manager in their former community are not etched in stone. There is similar ambiguity when a former manager engages in their new hometown. If you find yourself in that role or dealing with someone in that role, here are some considerations:

1. Before volunteering to serve in an official capacity in the community where you live or worked, check in with the current manager. Listen to discern whether your participation will be helpful and not an impediment.

2. No two will lead and manage an organization the same way, yet both may be successful in the end. Consider that if former staff reach out to talk about the new leadership. Keep your conversations focused on personal, not professional, topics.

3. Keep your counsel private. If you think your colleague is making poor decisions or seems off track, offer your professional expertise in private. Once offered, step back. Even as a former practitioner and resident, you may not have the insider perspective and all the facts. Also, differences of opinion or approach are not cause for going around your colleague. Standing at the dais at a public meeting or talking with the elected officials should be the very last resort held for ethical or legal matters.

4. The right to do something doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do. Think about that as you weigh your engagement in your former or current community.

Returning to Tenet 1, if we believe that professional management is essential to efficient and democratic local government, then it is incumbent on all of us to do our best to respect and, in a constructive way, support our colleagues.

Martha Perego

MARTHA PEREGO, ICMA-CM, is director of member services and ethics director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (mperego@icma.org). 

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