Image of ethical road signs

In this lightning-paced world, premium is placed on the leader who quickly and astutely assesses the lay of the land, sees beyond this terrain, and makes that decisive call. Acting independently of their team, they have a certainty, perhaps mixed with a ting of hope, that they made the right call.

Leading a class focused on developing high-performing leaders, a sage teacher once reminded students that “hope is not a strategy.” The decisions that produce the best outcomes are based not on the hope of one person’s prowess or intellect. The best outcomes are based on values, data, an organizational culture that encourages and hears all points of view, and a clear objective understanding of the problem to be solved. Plowing forward solely based on your intuition, intellect, or experience is not sufficient.

How does this relate to ethics? The same principles that you use to lead a high-performing organization should be applied to resolving the ethical issues you face daily. Begin first with values. What are your personal values? What are the organization’s values? What are the values of this profession? How and when do they align? How and when do they conflict? What will you do when faced with a situation where your personal values conflict with the profession’s standards or your employer’s?

Trained up in a profession with a culture that espouses “good leaders have all the answers,” you may be very reluctant to reach out for advice. That culture is pervasive with leaders at all levels of local government. Seeking an outside opinion though when dealing with an ethical dilemma is critical to reaching a good outcome. In the middle of a vortex of values, those all-too-common factors of emotion, self-interest, or bias may “deep six” your objective thinking.

This is why ICMA offers confidential ethics advice to members. At times, we are a sounding board to vet a well-thought-out approach. At other times, the situation is so new to the landscape, we work the problem with the member, peeling back the onion so to speak to identify all the layered ethical issues. That happens more often than you would imagine. Consider that even seasoned individuals were dealing with their first global pandemic and the thorny ethical challenges it presented.

Here are situations where members sought advice on applying the values of this profession to their daily life. All the inquires we field are confidential. Some small details may be changed to preserve that confidentiality. If you read this and think, “wow, they are talking about my situation,” please know that for every scenario described here, it’s not the first time that someone asked the question.

Vouching for a Former Elected Official

A former commissioner who still lives in the county reached out to the current county manager to ask for a professional reference. The manager had a productive and friendly relationship working with the commissioner over a span of two terms in office. She was impressed with the commissioner’s work ethic and ability to park the politics to meet the community’s needs. The commissioner is applying for an administrative position with a university (not located in the county) and feels like his policy and community engagement work as an elected official would be relevant. Before saying yes, the county manager wanted to explore the ethical implications.

Since this is coming from a former elected official, the manager will dodge the hazard of doing something for one elected official that creates the appearance of preferential treatment. A manager who is viewed as aligned with a subset of the governing body or too friendly with an elected official runs the risk of having that perception damage an effective working relationship with the body. Again, not an issue here since this is a former elected official making the request.

Next, the manager needs to evaluate whether they can be truthful and accurate in describing the individual’s work on the commission. That should be the standard for all reference letters, but even more important for a manager commenting on the work of a former commissioner. If the manager is confident that this endeavor will not stray into a work of fiction, then it is fine from an ethics perspective to write the letter. While the letter will describe the nature of how they came to work together, the manager should not leverage his or her office or the influence of the county in doing so. Use personal stationary (or email) making it clear that you offer these comments as a private individual.

While this scenario may clearly land on the “right” side of the ethical spectrum, consider where a slight change in the letter’s purpose may leave you. The former commissioner needs a character reference for his next appearance before the parole board. An extreme lapse in judgment managing his personal business resulted in a criminal conviction for racketeering and tax evasion. Would you stake your reputation on an individual who is professing remorse and seeking redemption? What steps would you take to ensure that is the case? Does the circumstance of the letter even matter if you can be truthful in your comments?

My Spouse: Candidate for Elected Office

After decades of volunteer service to the community, the city manager’s spouse is considering a run for the state legislature. The spouse is very well known in the city and broader region. Her resume of service includes school committees, Rotary, and regional library board. She is a perennial volunteer for other worthy causes. Service is in her DNA.

While she feels very effective in her service, she never really considered whether she would be more so serving as an elected official. The question is front of mind with the recent announcement that the longtime incumbent for the state district is retiring. As a political novice, she would never enter the race against an incumbent with a track record and funding. But now, the field will be wide open.

The ICMA Code of Ethics only applies to members. That said, if she decides to run, this will have an impact on her spouse, his role as city manager, and his ethical obligation to be nonpartisan and disengaged from electoral politics. What steps should he take?

Not overwhelming in numbers, but there are city and county managers, along with other local government staff, whose spouses serve in elected roles as judges and state representatives. They also serve on city councils and county commissions. The latter is okay from an ethics perspective if they do not serve on the governing body that employs their spouse as manager or the organization where their spouse works. That scenario presents a conflict of interest that cannot be overcome.

To ensure that they stay on the right side of the ethical line, it’s incumbent on the ICMA member to carefully consider their engagement in the campaign and, if successful, how they will continue to fulfill their role at work.

As a first step, once the decision is made to enter the campaign, the member should inform their supervisors. For a manager, that notice goes in writing to their entire governing body. For all others, it’s the immediate supervisor. That notice should remind all that the member has made a commitment to avoid political activity that undermines public confidence in their work. It is critically important that members working in a local government be nonpartisan so that they can represent the diverse interests of the community, both in characteristics and diversity of thought on issues. Being nonpartisan requires members to stay out of all activity on behalf of candidates for elected office and that includes family members. You can offer moral support in private, but you should not play any public role in your spouse’s campaign.

Should the spouse be successful in her campaign, this manager needs to think through the strategy for how the city will engage at the state level with their new representative. It may be that the manager will have other staff take the lead, create a team that includes more than just the manager, and/or engage the city elected officials to be the point of contact. All of those are just suggested approaches for consideration.

Over the next months, this column will continue to explore the real-world scenarios that members pose along with our best advice to ensure an ethical outcome.


Martha Perego

MARTHA PEREGO, ICMA-CM, is director of member services and ethics director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (

New, Reduced Membership Dues

A new, reduced dues rate is available for CAOs/ACAOs, along with additional discounts for those in smaller communities, has been implemented. Learn more and be sure to join or renew today!