Image of Newport, Rhode Island

I have been a professional manager since 1989. Over the past 33 years, I have served as the chief administrative officer in two historic cities and one large county, and as a department director in two jurisdictions.

There is a certain comfort to usually familiar organizational structures in most local governments. But the challenge often comes when navigating ethics because of the sometimes-stark differences in community culture.

Throughout my professional peregrinations, one constant has been the ICMA Code of Ethics. Hung prominently in my office, the Code of Ethics provides direction and expectations for the manager, council, and community. But with the cultural differences each community brings, applying the Code can be a matter of interpretation. I recall one manager saying obliquely that we managers know well that one plus one equals two, but politics does not always work that way. And in a very interesting recent ICMA international committee meeting, an international member suggested that what may work in the States, for the most part, may not work in their country—the issue was being an appointed manager and non-political.

Most of my career has been in my home state of Maryland. Maryland has certainly had its share of political corruption. The most well-known being Vice President Spiro Agnew. Often forgotten in the turmoil of President Nixon’s impeachment, Agnew pleaded nolo contendere to indictments stemming from kickbacks during his time as county executive of Baltimore County and governor of Maryland.

My last full-time appointment was in Baltimore County, where Agnew’s portrait is prominently displayed outside the county executive’s suite, along with at least one other indicted county executive. My time in Baltimore County was not without ethical challenges; however, the focus of this article will be my time as city manager of Newport, Rhode Island. Rhode Island is the smallest state of the union, but has a large history of public-sector ethical challenges. During the period of time just before, during, and after my tenure, the state had two state supreme court chiefs, judges, a governor, speaker of the house, president of the senate, and mayor of Providence, to name a few, resign, be indicted, and/or jailed over a whole range of ethical and criminal lapses.

Although Rhode Island had a reputation for mob-tinged corruption, Newport did think itself above the fray. Newport, called America’s First Resort, is home to the Gilded Age mansions of the Astors and Vanderbilts. With that history, most of the Newport imbroglios tended to be of the socialite murder-mystery milieu, such as the alleged murder involving socialite billionaire Doris Duke.

Although I served with some upstanding elected officials, I found that despite Newport being situated on Aquidneck Island, no community is an island and immune from the “culture of corruption” that did pervade much of the state.

When it was announced that I was leaving the city of Annapolis for Newport, there were many people in Annapolis who volunteered their guidance, as the ties between the communities were many through the Naval Academy, history, and sailing. One such informal advisor was a former America’s Cup sailor and frequent Newport visitor. My friend invited me to lunch and proceeded to tell me about the people I should meet and how to navigate the political shoals of my future home. One of the contacts he gave me was a well-connected person related to Katherine Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post.

Once settled into Newport, I scheduled a meet and greet with this new local contact. The meeting was helpful, and she focused my attention on an area of the center city harbor where there was a haphazard-looking houseboat and pier facility, along with the then-derelict American Shipyard across from Goat Island and adjacent to my new neighborhood, The Point. She pointed out that these harbor hotspots needed my intervention because of their at-best unsavory and at-worst mob-related control. She went on at great length about the unethical arrangements of these facilities that she said were based on inside access, such as free dockage at the houseboat facility. I ended the lunch by saying I was just new at the job and would look into the issues, but suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that someone with her pedigree would be better suited to take on people of that gravitas. As I would soon find out, I would soon be at the center of it all.

Just before I arrived in Newport, the city had received a $6 million federal grant for the location of a yet-unspecified cruise ship terminal. It soon became apparent that everyone had ideas for where it should go, and two included the aforementioned unsavory and mob-related locations. After public meetings, the community started to coalesce around the shipyard, the in-town harbor houseboat location, and the adjacent Goat Island. The shipyard was problematic because of the ownership, rumors that the price for the docking area was to bail out the owners from a mob-originated loan, and the reluctance of the neighborhood in having a busy port nearby. The Goat Island proposal was for a large cruise ship pier that was also not liked by the adjacent residents. And the in-town harbor location was not liked by the unsavory operator and perhaps some connected folks who utilized his dock access.

After numerous transparent meetings, we decided on the in-harbor location, which meant evicting the squatter houseboat operator who had, at best, an informal agreement with the city fathers to operate. After much consternation, he was evicted and was last seen bailing out his sinking houseboat on his way to adjacent Jamestown Island. As can happen after making a tough decision, the police stood guard near my home for a few days after receiving threats from the evicted squatter and family. At the new facility, we were able to create a fully functional harbormaster’s office and multi-modal transportation hub that would handle the cruise ship tenders, inter- and intra-harbor ferry piers, and surface bus transportation, as well as a beautiful public park. The former American Shipyard, that was reputed to be controlled by a mob financier and used for stripping military ships, was soon thereafter purchased by a local entrepreneur who rebuilt it into the now very successful Newport Shipyard. The shipyard has a 250-ton boat lift, yacht refitting and pier facilities, and the fantastic Belle’s Cafe.

In the end, good government and ethics prevailed. But not without much debate, arm twisting, and a whole lot of Tums—a manager’s best friend!

Helpful Tips to Navigate Ethical Issues


1. Embrace the ICMA Code of Ethics. Make it part of your contract and hang a copy in your office. Share a copy with your managers. Although they may have their own professional code of ethics, I always made it clear where I was coming from and what I expected.

2. Do not cave to political pressures that can come in all forms and levels. Your professional reputation is your currency, and it’s hard to retrieve once it’s compromised.

3. Be careful associating with entities doing business with your community. This can be difficult, particularly in small communities. I have always found it fruitful to be a member of a local service club; and you certainly see people at the gym, your children’s school, and on the street.

4. Most communities have some sort of ethics code and boundaries on accepting gifts. Do not push those boundaries. The appearance can be as bad as the act. In a recent employment, one of my managers talked of one of his employees accepting a gift to an expensive sporting event. That employee was reprimanded and made to pay back the gratuity. Soon thereafter, the inspector general issued a report on a much bigger, related quid pro quo. Those headlines are not your friend.

5. As the Code of Ethics advises, be upfront, inform, and document with your elected officials. It helps them to understand what is going on and can be helpful if and when an issue arises.

Headshot of author Michael Mallinoff

has been a local government manager for 33 years, including city manager in Newport, Rhode Island; and Annapolis, Maryland; as well as county administrator in Charles County, Maryland.

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