Building on last month’s column, which explored ethics situations that local government professionals have encountered, here are some more for your consideration.
Weighing Right and Competing Values
The county needed a new data management software. Following a very competitive process, the staff team recommended a firm that met or exceeded the criteria outlined in the RFP. The cost was a bit over budget, but from the staff’s estimation, worth the investment. Sensitive to the county’s financial condition, the vendor offered a discount if the lead staff on the project and perhaps the county manager would participate in a webinar series designed to showcase the county’s experience in implementing the software. Wouldn’t other counties benefit from the experience? The discount was not unsubstantial.
To her credit, the manager immediately identified the ethics values associated with the proposed discount. The proposals presented equally important yet competing values: the public benefit of saving money versus the integrity of the procurement process. On the latter, even if the county staff had editorial rights over the webinars, what impact might those videos have on the ever-present objective, in fact and appearance, to conduct a fair and transparent procurement process? Adding to the complexity, the ICMA Code of Ethics advises members not to endorse commercial products or services.
The manager was right to proceed with caution here. It’s one thing to talk about using the software as part of an educational session at a professional conference or doing a webinar sponsored by a professional association. Both have a level of editorial review to ensure that the content is balanced. Both approaches give county staff the opportunity to talk about their experience and respond to questions. The element of context matters here.
Doing a video that is sponsored by the company is another issue altogether. It’s a one and done. Most likely it will be placed on the company’s website and used in other ways to market their software. It’s a blanket endorsement of the product without regard for context and the potential users’ needs. That creates an ethical issue for any county staff who are members of ICMA and adhere to the first principle of Tenet 12 that public office is a public trust.
Endorsements. Members should not endorse commercial products or services by agreeing to use their photograph, endorsement, or quotation in paid or other commercial advertisements, marketing materials, social media, or other documents, whether the member is compensated or not for the member’s support. Members may, however, provide verbal professional references as part of the due diligence phase of competitive process or in response to a direct inquiry.
Members may agree to endorse the following, provided they do not receive any compensation: (1) books or other publications; (2) professional development or educational services provided by nonprofit membership organizations or recognized educational institutions; (3) products and/or services in which the local government has a direct economic interest.
Members’ observations, opinions, and analyses of commercial products used or tested by their local governments are appropriate and useful to the profession when included as part of professional articles and reports.
It was best to decline the discount offer rather than risk reputational harm for the county and the staff.
Giving Back to the Community
An assistant city manager was asked to serve on the economic development authority in the city where he lives. The assistant has had success in attracting business to the community where he works thus building a reputation in the region as a subject matter expert. His home and work cities are 35 miles apart. The principal doing the ask thought that the distance between the two locales negated any ethical conflict. The assistant didn’t agree and sought advice from ICMA.
The first consideration here is to confirm that the appointment doesn’t violate the Tenet 7 prohibition on holding a publicly elected office while working for a local government. If membership on a board or commission is strictly by appointment, then a member would not be violating Tenet 7 by accepting the appointment.
Next to assess is the potential for this appointment to create a conflict of interest or appearance with your professional work obligations. On that point, distance between where you work and live as it relates to personal endeavors does help, as does the type of activity. If the impact of your volunteer effort is truly limited to the geographic boundaries of your hometown, that certainly negates a concern about conflicts. Depending on the activity, it may be enough to cure any potential conflict of interest. For example, if you served on the advisory board for affordable housing or the local library board, the impact of the effort is truly localized.
Accepting an appointment to the zoning hearing board, where the parties are seeking a decision based on local regulations for local use of a property, may similarly seem like safe territory. The impact of the decision may be local, but will have broader implications if the applicant is a corporation or entity with interests beyond your hometown. What’s the ethical implication of voting on a matter as part of a zoning hearing board in your hometown if the affected party also has official interaction with the city where you work? See how complicated and far reaching this gets?
Applying these principles to the invitation to serve on an economic development authority, the assistant city manager is correct to be concerned about the ethical implications of accepting the offer. What’s the potential, especially separated by only 35 miles, that both locations will be vetting the same businesses? Will they be competitors in the same pool of state grants or funds to support businesses? Even if there is staff in the hometown doing the heavy lifting, might there be the appearance that the assistant’s advice benefitted the home city over his place of employment? Imagine the awkward conversation at work if the hometown prevails over the other city in landing a new employer? This scenario puts the assistant in the untenable position of balancing competing interests and loyalties.
Before volunteering your professional expertise for a board or commission, best to think through the potential for conflicts of interest in fact or appearance. Talking it over with your employer to ensure that they are aware and onboard is also advised. Talking it over with the manager and staff in the organization making the ask is wise as well. After all, when you take the time and make the commitment to volunteer your expertise, you want to serve the public’s interest in the best way possible.
In closing, you are encouraged to reach out to ICMA ethics staff for advice. Once again, it is worth reminding everyone that the advice is confidential. To preserve that confidentiality, some telling details are changed in sharing real-world stories. 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 someone asked the question.
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