Understanding ICMA's Ethics Enforcement Process

The Cal-ICMA Ethics Committee is committed to raising awareness on all aspects of the ICMA Code of Ethics.

Aug 29, 2017 | ARTICLE

Message from the Cal-ICMA Ethics Committee

Every member of ICMA is governed by the ICMA Code of Ethics. Adopted in 1924, the Code establishes the principles that lay the foundation for our local government management profession and helps to set the standard for excellence in government. ICMA members pledge to uphold these principles in their work as a method to help earn trust of the public, elected officials, and their staff.

The Cal-ICMA Ethics Committee is committed to raising awareness of this obligation and the importance of respecting political neutrality and the rights of elected official and residents as encouraged by the Code of Ethics. We will be highlighting specific ethical issues and reprising past articles from ICMA in the bimonthly Cal-ICMA Update.  Here’s a link to the June article, the first in this series: Responding to an Ethical Crisis.

Understanding ICMA’s Ethics Enforcement Process

With a total membership of more than 11,000, ICMA receives only 30 to 40 ethics complaints annually.

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Based purely on the trends, the likelihood that a member will go through the ICMA ethics enforcement process sometime in his or her career is reasonably low. With a total membership of more than 9,500, ICMA receives only 30 to 40 ethics complaints annually.

The lack of familiarity with the enforcement process, though, generates a number of questions when incidents of wrongdoing hit the light of day. Given the profession’s commitment to accountability, making sure that the process for enforcing the Code is clear and understood is important.

Here are the answers to 10 frequently asked questions:

  1. Who is covered by the Code of Ethics?

As a condition of membership, all ICMA members agree to comply with the Code. Members who are working for a local government, special district, municipal league, or council of governments, on a full-time, part-time, or interim basis, or as an intern, must adhere to the entire Code.

Members who are working in another field, students, and retirees must follow Tenets 1 (Democracy) and Tenet 3 (Integrity).

  1. What constitutes a valid complaint? Filing a complaint with ICMA is a simple, straightforward process: Put it in writing, clearly outline the alleged misconduct, and support the allegation with documentation.

With a valid complaint in hand, the next test is whether the alleged misconduct, if proven to be true, would actually violate the Code of Ethics. If the answer is yes, ICMA will proceed with an ethics inquiry.

Unsure if something is really worthy of review? You can discuss the matter with ICMA staff on a confidential basis. No action is taken until a formal complaint is filed.

  1. Does the ethics complaint process end if the member quits ICMA?

No! Once a case has been opened, ICMA will continue the process to its conclusion. That said, ICMA cannot open a case with a former member unless that person agrees to participate.

  1. Who complains?

The good news is that ICMA members are the most common source of ethics complaints. That shows a level of commitment by the profession to pay attention and police its own. Complaints also come from elected officials and residents who know about ICMA’s standards.

Anonymous complaints get processed as well, but only if supported by the requisite documentation. ICMA has a long-standing practice of taking complaints from individuals who do not wish to go on record as the complainant. They are not anonymous, just confidential.

  1. Is it really confidential?

The entire review process is confidential, unless and until it results in a finding by the ICMA Executive Board that a member has violated the Code and the appropriate sanction is a public one. Absent that, every ICMA member must maintain confidentiality about the review.

  1. What about the member’s point of view?

The process begins with the assumption of innocence. After all, the information presented may not be accurate. And the member’s perspective on what transpired hasn’t been heard.

Starting from that position, the member is given the opportunity to review the entire complaint and all documents. The member then has the chance to provide a detailed written response to the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct. The opportunity to explain what transpired and provide supporting documentation as well as statements from others is key to getting at the facts.

The committee reviews the member’s response to the allegation and if the facts are clear, it can draw a conclusion as to whether or not the member’s conduct violated the Code. If the committee decides that it lacks the necessary information to proceed, the next step is to ask the state association to appoint a fact-finding committee.

  1. What role does fact finding play?

Members assigned to the fact-finding committee gather the missing information and report back to ICMA in 60 days. They do not determine guilt or innocence. Their efforts may involve interviewing the member at the center of the ethics review; interviewing others; collecting public records; or in the case of legal matters, obtaining court records.

Once all the available facts are collected, the fact-finding committee submits its findings to the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct for review. This is the final step in the data-gathering process.

  1. Who decides?

The ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct is solely responsible for determining whether the member violated the Code or not, based on the information made available. If the committee concludes that the member didn’t violate it, the case will be closed.

If the committee concludes that the member did violate the Code, it can select from an array of censures, including private censure, public censure, suspension from membership for up to five years, permanent membership expulsion or bar, and credential revocation. All of the options beyond a private censure require approval by the ICMA Executive Board.

  1. Is there an appeal process?

Any sanction can be appealed to the executive board, where the member has the opportunity to address the board in a hearing.

  1. How is the outcome publicized?

At the conclusion of every review process, ICMA notifies the complainant and the state association president that the matter has been resolved. When a public censure is issued, notice of that action is shared with the news media as well as the appropriate governing body.

ICMA members must be willing to report in good faith matters of concern. Allow an objective peer review process to sort out the facts and reach an independent judgment. Allegations of unethical conduct by public officials that go unaddressed can undermine the public’s trust and harm the reputation of the profession.

Original Article in PM Mag | Apr 15, 2015