headshot of Jessica Cowles

How do you step into a new role when you have big shoes to fill? Many of us have experienced this in local government, whether you are a seasoned manager or just getting your start in this profession. Lived experiences, professional background, education, and personal pursuits—just to name a few—are characteristics that set us apart from our predecessor and personalize our own approach to the job.

The answer for me is that it is impossible to be the same person as the individual who previously occupied the position. You honor them through trial and error, always learning along the way, and forging a new path that is uniquely yours. I endeavor to do this as I embark on the role of ethics director at ICMA.

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Jessica Cowles, and for more than five years, I have served as ICMA’s ethics advisor. Prior to that, I worked in local government, including four years as a town manager. One of the benefits of ICMA membership is the opportunity to seek and receive confidential ethics advice from ICMA staff. Some examples of this can be to assess situations such as potential conflicts of interest, difficult council-manager relations, or challenges to political neutrality. As ethics advisor, I provided confidential ethics advice to many members over the years, and I’ll continue to do so in my new role. Feel free to reach out to me at jcowles@icma.org.

As the new director of the ethics program, I’ll be taking the reins on the “Ethics Matter!” column of PM magazine. In this first column, I’m pleased to announce the new revisions to the ICMA Code of Ethics, along with updates to the Rules of Procedure for Enforcement.

Revisions to the ICMA Code of Ethics and the Rules of Procedure for Enforcement

The Code of Ethics expresses the professional and personal conduct of membership and defines the values that serve as the basis for building and maintaining trust in the local government management profession. Membership first adopted the Code in 1924, and it was last amended in 2020. As background, tenets are the values of the profession while guidelines assist members in applying the principles outlined in the Code.

The ICMA executive board asked the Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) to review the Code with membership to ensure it reflected the profession’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The three-year effort resulted in membership adopting revisions to Tenets 1, 4, 9, and 11, with the board approving language for the guidelines for Tenets 4, 9, and 11.

The full Code of Ethics with tenets and guidelines can be found here. The version of the Code of Ethics that has tenets only and is meant for printing or hanging on the wall can be found here.

The Rules of Procedure for Enforcement govern the ethics review process when ICMA receives a complaint with documentation that alleges a member’s conduct may have violated the Code. The board approved the rules in the 1970s, which formalized the ethics complaint process, with revisions occurring as needed throughout the years.

The board recently adopted revisions to the rules that accomplished the following:

  1. Allowed for a member to request a hearing with the CPC only in cases where the CPC makes a preliminary recommendation of public censure and before the case is referred to the board for review and decision.
  2. Dropped the deadline for referring a matter to the CPC since the CPC meets regularly.
  3. Provided overall edits and updated language to clarify the process.

The rules can be found here.

The Way Forward

What can you expect from the “Ethics Matter!” column going forward? In the year ahead, we will answer ethics questions we receive, discuss the importance of political neutrality during election season and beyond, navigate communications, manage conflicts of interest, and work together to advance the public’s trust through professional management. We will have guest columnists occasionally, offering insight on ethics topics as well.

As I take on my new role as ethics director, I look forward to connecting with you every month through the column. In addition to reaching out to me for ethics advice, please let me know of any specific topics you would like me to cover. I’m thrilled to contribute my voice to PM as a reminder to readers that ethics matter!

Headshot of Jessica Cowles


JESSICA COWLES is ethics director at ICMA (jcowles@icma.org).

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