Magnifying glass over the word 'ethics'

Recently I met with state association presidents and secretariats in the midwest region to talk about the ethics enforcement process that ICMA and the states follow through its constitution, bylaws, and rules of procedure. That meeting was the inspiration for this column in demonstrating how the Code of Ethics requires that we hold ourselves to a high standard of personal and professional excellence; provides credibility with employees, governing bodies, and the community; and has promoted good government for over 100 years.

As a refresher, ICMA’s Constitution requires the ICMA Executive Board to establish a standing Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC). Each CPC member is selected from among the vice presidents, who are elected by members to serve three-year terms of office on the executive board.

The CPC members are peers who serve local governments in either the capacity of manager, deputy, or assistant. The committee has three main objectives:

• To review all ethics matters, including investigating ethics complaints with the sole authority to determine when a member’s conduct has violated the Code and recommend appropriate sanctions to the board.

• To review the ethics advice that I provide to the membership.

• To produce a plan to guide its work each year.

The Ethics Review Process

Local governments function best when there are laws or policies in place, and the ethics review process is no exception. The Rules of Procedure for Enforcement of the Code of Ethics formalize the peer-review complaint process steps and timelines by governing what occurs and when. It is important to note (1) the Rules are not confidential and (2) it is the complaint process itself that requires confidentiality, as outlined in the guideline to Tenet 3:

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.
Confidentiality. Members shall not discuss or divulge information with anyone about pending or completed ethics cases, except as specifically authorized by the Rules of Procedure for Enforcement of the Code of Ethics.

When allegations that public officials have engaged in unethical conduct go unaddressed, this can undermine the public’s trust in local government and harm the reputation of the profession. One crucial element of ICMA’s ethics approach is to hold our members accountable for their conduct.

ICMA publishes an annual report on ethics to provide information about trends, data, and reviews in the last fiscal year. ICMA has more than 13,000 members and in the last 10 years there have been 230 ethics complaints, so this is a very small percentage. However, when a member’s conduct raises ethical concerns, ICMA carries out a formal peer review process, illustrated in Figure 1, to objectively determine whether the member’s conduct has violated the Code.

The process has three phases, and it’s worth noting that the CPC is attuned to weaponization of the process in the complaint submission phase. Enforcement is about protecting the profession’s integrity in positions that merit the public’s trust, not using an ethics complaint to exact revenge.


Reinforcing the Code in the ICMA Membership Application

The board’s Membership and Outreach Committee and the CPC both reviewed the current process for joining ICMA membership. The CPC has heard from members going through the ethics review process that they were not aware of their obligations in the Code, so this effort provided further clarity by promoting the Code through recent updates to the membership application and renewal process. Here are the changes that were made:

1. Added a narrative to the online member application:

“Promoting an ethical culture in local government management has been at the very core of ICMA’s mission and foundation. The Code expresses the professional and personal conduct expected of members as well as defines the principles that serve as the basis for building and maintaining trust in the local government management profession. As a condition for joining ICMA, an individual agrees to adhere to the Code.

A member in service to a local government, or special district, municipal league, or council of governments, regardless of whether it is on a full-time, part-time, or interim basis, or as an intern, must comply with the entire Code. Members who are working in another field, students, or retirees must follow Tenets 1 (Democracy) and Tenet 3 (Integrity). Tenet 7 (political activity) does not apply to elected officials.”

2. Added a Code badge to the My Profile section of the Who’s Who database when individuals log in to

3. Included the Code in its entirety for individuals to affirm as read before signing the member application.

4. Placed the Code prominently on the website to celebrate the 100th anniversary.

5. Updated the Code in the printed application.

6. Continued ethics education efforts, including training sessions, presentations, and articles to raise awareness and celebrate the Code’s 100th anniversary.

Educate, Educate, Then Educate Some More

I began my employment at ICMA just over six years ago, coming from a background in local government management. At the core, I think all managers in public service thrive on solving problems for their organization. Sometimes they are easy to fix (celebrate those wins!) and much more often problems require stakeholder consensus that happens over time.

My role as CPC staff liaison involves notifying state association presidents when the CPC asks that a fact-finding committee be appointed to obtain information to help bring an ethics matter to a conclusion. This occurs in only about five to seven ethics cases each year.

Service on a fact-finding committee means offering the member in the ethics review process the opportunity to meet with them, using the records request process to obtain documentation, and preparing a summary report. This can be a heavy lift on top of an already demanding full-time job in local government, so thank you to all that have served the profession in this capacity.

In my role, I quickly learned that a pending ethics review can span the tenures of two different presidents, and the first a president may have heard about it is my call to them regarding a fact-finding committee request. That was the problem. My solution? Ongoing education and work to demystify the process supported in #6 as I mentioned previously!

I have offered to provide a brief overview of the state associations’ role in ICMA’s ethics review process at one of the state association’s upcoming executive board meetings or a virtual meeting in the next year. Thank you to those state association leaders that have already reached out to me, and I look forward to hearing from others.

Just like local governments, we will continue to find ways to talk about our values and principles as expressed in the Code. Reach out to me and share your success stories!

Jessica Cowles headshot


JESSICA COWLES is ethics director at ICMA (

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