Image of people pointing to budgeting icons

April can be a grueling month for those who serve in local government management and, like I did, follow a July to June fiscal year. Days, evenings, and even weekends are filled with committee meetings, workshops, and public hearings on the budget. The effort is a heavy lift for departments and especially for the manager’s office and finance staff on top of day-to-day responsibilities.

When a councilmember or resident becomes critical of the budget, it can lead to moments of self-doubt and thoughts like “Do my long hours have the intended impact?” The answer is that public servants continue to choose this profession over other career paths because we prioritize the needs of our community. This isn’t the easy route, and it is made even more difficult when you operate in a fishbowl. This profession takes a toll personally and professionally, and I would guess most have unseen scars to prove it.

This fundamental public service principle for our profession is recognized in the first version of the ICMA Code of Ethics from 1924 (thankfully updated today with more inclusive pronouns and titles!):

A City Manager will be known by his works, many of which may outlast him, and regardless of personal popularity or unpopularity, he should not curry favor or temporize but should in a far-sighted way aim to benefit the community of today and of posterity.

We all need moments to renew and uplift both ourselves and the profession so we can fulfill this commitment. So, as you read this column, grab a cup of coffee and recharge! You earned this moment!

Tenet 1: What We Do and How We Do It

ICMA was founded with a commitment to preserving the value and integrity of representative local government and local democracy with a dedication to the promotion of effective, efficient, and equitable public service management. To fulfill the spirit of this commitment, ICMA works to maintain and enhance public trust and confidence in local government, achieve equity and social justice, affirm human dignity, and improve quality of life for the individual and the community.

Tenet 1

ICMA, the National Academy of Public Administration, and the American Society for Public Administration recognize that professional management stands on the pillars of effective, efficient, equitable, and democratic local government. These have been priorities since the profession was founded with these principles reflected in the Code’s first version and ICMA’s Declaration of Ideals as well.

ICMA defines a professional manager as a local government chief appointed officer who, at a minimum:

  • Has direct responsibility for policy formulation on overall problems.
  • Has major responsibility for the preparation and administration of a jurisdiction’s operating and capital improvements budgets.
  • Exercises significant influence in the appointment of key administrative personnel.
  • Has an ongoing, direct relationship with the operating department heads on the implementation and administration of the programs.
  • Was hired as a result of her or his educational and administrative background and qualifications.
  • Is a member of ICMA and therefore must adhere to the ICMA Code of Ethics, which was adopted by ICMA in 1924 and governs each member’s professional and personal conduct.

Jerry Newfarmer managed major cities for many years and then went on to executive recruiting. He wrote about research on this topic from Kimberly Nelson and Whitney Afonso at University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill’s School of Government. Drs. Nelson and Afonso published the results of their study in Public Administration Review with the finding, “The council-manager form of government is … 57 percent less likely than the mayor-council form to have an instance of corruption.” Newfarmer wrote, “The partnership between the ethically bound professional manager and elected officials is an effective check on corruption.”

There might be rumblings on the council or in the community about the council-manager form. Governance can be rife with misconceptions, so ICMA created a short video as an explanation. ICMA’s director of advocacy for the form of government is Jason Grant, who is a resource in assisting members and communities.

Belief in the Value of Local Government Services

City, county, and town managers choose this profession because at our core we want to make a difference. That is achieved through the organization providing exceptional public services to all stakeholders. Parks and recreation programs, street repaving, book titles in the library, permitting and code enforcement, and employee payroll — just to name a few — are how we make this mark of excellence.

Tenet 2

This also means that managers are sometimes sought out for this expertise. Tenet 2’s guideline on Advice to Officials of Other Local Governments states, “When members advise and respond to inquiries from elected or appointed officials of other local governments, they should inform the administrators of those communities in order to uphold local government professionalism.”

Professional courtesy extends beyond interactions with elected officials and the public. If a member of a colleague’s governing body contacts you for advice on how your organization approached an issue, or you respond to a direct question, a member is expected to notify his or her colleague of this contact as outlined in Tenet 2 and its guideline. Frankly speaking, you would want the same professional courtesy extended to you if the reverse situation occurred.

Take Care of You

We spend our days anticipating the needs of the organization, elected officials, employees, and residents. I’m reminded of the adage from airplane safety about securing your oxygen mask before you assist others. Who’s looking after you?

Take the paid time off you’ve earned, focus on your health, learn to cook, be a tourist, read, or do nothing. Find ways to recharge in the midst of chaos. This profession has peaks and valleys, so give yourself permission to enjoy when there’s a lull in the action — although that might not be in April!


Jessica Cowles headshot


JESSICA COWLES is ethics director at ICMA (

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