In the not-too-distant past, electing candidates for public office was akin to the rotation and tilt of the Earth. Both had defined seasons with the caveat, of course, that politics, like mother nature, can be unpredictable. With each, we had our equinoxes and solstices. A time for activity and a time for rest.
The predictability of seasons gave local government managers and their staff clear direction. During the campaign season, astute staff kept their heads down, avoided meetings with elected officials designed as campaign photo ops, and curtailed their social activities. An annual community picnic once regularly attended is now off-limits during campaign season when all the candidates make an appearance.
Between the swearing in and the next primary, that period of détente provided all parties with the opportunity to focus on the actual work of serving constituents. While ever vigilant, of course, for the off chance of getting drawn inadvertently into politics, this period did provide the manager and staff with needed breathing room. Parked for a moment were the concerns about ulterior motives of an elected official who sought a meeting with constituents or convened a meeting with elected officials and community leaders to talk about an issue. The focus was on issues, not campaigns.
Perhaps influenced by the culture at the federal level where both newly sworn officials and incumbents alike seem fixated and focused on prevailing in the next election, the season for politicking at the local level seems far less defined as well. In this new environment, managers and staff are advised to be on guard and ever vigilant in recognizing and managing the candidate politics. To that end, here is some advice that applies to all ICMA members who are working for a local government.
ICMA members share with their fellow citizens the right and responsibility to vote. If you live in a state with closed primaries, you are permitted under the ICMA Code of Ethics to register with a political party for the purpose of exercising that right.
To be effective in doing your work on behalf of your local government, do not endorse any candidates running for city, county, special district, school, state, or federal offices. Activities to be avoided include public statements of support, yard signs, and bumper stickers, as well as more subtle signs of support, such as appearing on the dais of a campaign rally with the candidate or posting a selfie on social media wearing the candidate’s campaign gear. These activities constitute an endorsement.
Whether it is for an individual seeking elected office, an incumbent running again, a political party, or another organization that makes direct donations to candidates, members should not make a financial donation. All donations, regardless of how modest, are a matter of public record with both names and occupations listed. While the donation may be tiny in the grand scheme of things, you are publicly stating your support for the candidate.
What about other fundraising events, like private parties hosted by supporters or going as a guest to an event? All these efforts, whether a direct appeal or not, are intended to generate financial support for a candidate. For that reason, they should be avoided. The election guideline in the ICMA Code of Ethics states that members shall not make financial contributions or participate in fund-raising activities for individuals seeking or holding elected office.
Forums or debates sponsored by independent organizations provide everyone with the opportunity to learn more about the candidates and their positions. For that reason, you can attend as a private citizen or staff member. What’s important is to keep a low profile and be prepared to respond if someone at a local event tries to draw you into the debate. Practice your response: “I am just here to learn more about the issues and have no comment.”
While political, there is a valid argument that rallies are an opportunity to hear more about the candidate’s position on the issues. Sitting on the dais behind the candidate is not a good idea. A lower profile in the back of the venue is the best option. Attending a single event is a learning opportunity. Attending multiple events is crossing the line into a show of support and endorsement for the candidate.
The guideline on personal advocacy of issues makes it clear that ICMA members do not lose their right to express their opinion. Members share with their fellow citizens the right and responsibility to voice their opinion on public issues. Members may advocate for issues of personal interest only when doing so does not conflict with the performance of their official duties.
If you want to advocate for a position, you can do so. First, make it clear that the opinion you offer is your own. Second, don’t use public resources, including your official title, to support a personal stance. Third, focus on the issue and not the candidate. Lastly, you can join and/or make a financial contribution to an issue-oriented advocacy organization. You can march in a protest or rally or participate in a campaign designed to raise awareness. You can put a bumper sticker on your car (just not on a city-issued car).
In the current climate where every issue is highly politicized and partisan, taking a stance can seem very political. For that reason, it’s wise to consider the consequences of speaking out. It’s not a reason to stand down or stay silent. Just something to consider.
What do you do if your kids want to put up a yard sign? Or protest? Or your spouse wants to make a financial donation? The Code only applies to the conduct of the member. Your spouse can make a campaign donation, even from a joint account, if they sign the check. The yard sign or bumper sticker on the family car are stickier issues to address. How would anyone else know that it is your spouse or child who supports the candidate and not you? Best to have that candid discussion with family about how their political activity can affect you.
On a personal level, you have the right to vote for the candidate of your choice. On a professional level, whether the elected official was your choice or not, consider your obligation to work effectively with all elected officials on behalf of your community. That county commissioner, state representative, or congressman that represents your local government and the residents will be your ally in bringing needed support during a natural disaster or assistance on legislation.
Publicly engaging on behalf of or in opposition to an elected official will impair your ability to serve your official position. Some may respond, “But I live in a city or state that is dominated by one party, so what’s the harm in engaging?” Just because it is nonpartisan or dominated by a single party doesn’t insulate the process from party politics or party factions. In every campaign, there are winners and losers. Don’t bet that you will always select the winner. It’s best to exercise your right to participate in the democratic process while observing a politically neutral stance.