I have often hiked in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Some trails are well marked and easy to follow. Others are barely trails at all and make it much more difficult to keep yourself “on track.” In those circumstances when the trail is difficult to discern, there is nothing more reassuring than coming across a guidepost that confirms you are headed in the right direction.
Our paths as local government professionals are also at times difficult to traverse. Hopefully most of the time it is clear what we should do (or not do) in a particular circumstance. However, we will all encounter circumstances when it is more difficult to discern the right course of action—particularly when we have something significant to potentially lose or gain. The ICMA Code of Ethics can serve as our ethical “guidepost” to help us find the right path to follow in order to be true to our professional values.
There are a number of key values that underpin our profession. For many, if not most of us, these values were the reason we chose to commit our work lives to the local government profession. The ICMA Code of Ethics is not simply a set of rules to be followed, but the embodiment of the values upon which our profession is based. These values include:
- Supporting the equitable delivery of public services and the equitable treatment of residents.
- Preventing political interference in the delivery of basic services.
- Making personnel decisions solely based on merit.
- Respecting democratic values and maintaining the public’s confidence.
- Avoiding conflicts of interest.
- Demonstrating ethical conduct and integrity.
- Upholding the fundamental principles on which council/manager government is based.
- Committing to the effective and efficient delivery of public services.
While I suspect there would be little, if any, disagreement among our colleagues regarding these basic values, being true to these values as we navigate through the challenges of our careers is not always easy.
To be true to these values you need to ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you willing to commit to the fair and just implementation of public policies and services with attention to the most vulnerable and underserved members of the community?
- Are all members of your community able to get access to the same opportunities and services?
- Are you willing to stand up against efforts by elected officials to interfere in administrative matters granted to the manager by charter, law, or resolution?
- Are you also willing to faithfully implement the policy direction of your elected officials whether or not you recommended the policy chosen?
- Are you willing to withstand the pressure to make personnel decisions based on political or personal considerations?
- Are you committed to open and forthright communication with elected officials and the public regarding all matters within your purview, including the willingness to disclose bad news (such as organizational missteps) fully and in a timely manner?
- Are you willing to make decisions that may not be in your personal best interests (including putting your job security at risk, if necessary) in service to the best interests of the organization and community?
- Are you committed to working effectively with all elected officials who are carrying out their appropriate responsibilities regardless of your personal feelings regarding them or their philosophies?
- Do you fully appreciate that the “ends” cannot be separated from the “means” in carrying out your professional responsibilities?
- Are you willing to make tough decisions, even if not popular in your organization, to ensure organizational efficiency, effectiveness, and fiscal sustainability?
- Are you willing to potentially forfeit your current position in order to live up to the values that brought you into the profession?
These are all challenges you could face or perhaps have already faced during your career. Have you thoughtfully considered how you would deal with these challenges before you are faced with them?
I hope you periodically take the time to read and reflect on ICMA’s Code of Ethics (which is by way of your ICMA membership your code of ethics). As you do so, please view the Code not so much as a list of rules that limit your flexibility or an enforcement mechanism that could result in you being sanctioned, but more as a critical resource—your “guideposts” to help make sure that you arrive at the career destination you intended when you began your professional journey.
KEVIN DUGGAN is a retired city manager and current ICMA senior advisor in California.
This column is based on a Cal-ICMA sponsored presentation by ICMA/League of California Cities Senior Advisor Kevin Duggan and ICMA West Coast Regional Director Pat Martel at the 2023 League of California Cities City Managers Department Annual Meeting. The moderator of the session was Cal-ICMA Ethics Committee co-chair Brett Channing, assistant city manager, Corona, California).
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