A transition in who serves as the city, county, or town manager, regardless of how it came about, is a huge deal. New organizational leadership brings with it a significant investment in creating new relationships and adapting to a new style. And then there are all the organization priorities that may be paused or delayed due to the vacancy.
Each transition comes with a unique set of circumstances which will direct the organization’s next steps. For organizations that have experienced regular turnover in the manager’s position, the council will likely just dust off the process used before and move forward. They may look to staff to prepare the RFP to select an executive recruiter to conduct the search. Or direct staff, if they have sufficient resources, to manage the recruitment process.
Perhaps the question of succession was settled with the addition of an assistant or deputy who has been waiting in the wings. Since presumably it was the manager who hired the assistant or deputy, this is that rare moment when a manager does get to put their imprint of the future direction of the organization. Even so, no promise made to an assistant about their future in the organization is guaranteed until the governing body confirms the promise with a vote.
Consider the challenge to the organization though if the departing manager has served a long tenure, say 10 or more years. In that case, there may be elected officials or even the entire governing body who have never been through the process of recruiting and hiring a manager. And that is a problem given that selecting the person to lead the organization is perhaps the most important decision elected officials will make on behalf of the community and staff.
Or perhaps the position is open after voters adopted a form of government that provides for a manager or administrator. That governing body is in the same predicament: making the most significant of decisions without any prior experience in designing a process, defining the desired characteristics of the best candidate, and then managing the vetting process.
In all these cases, its neither rare nor inappropriate for the governing body to look to the current manager for advice on the selection of their successor or to reach out to other managers in the region for help. The response by the manager though needs to align with the ethical values of the profession.
This is such a common scenario that ICMA’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) developed advice on the managers role in the executive recruiting process. The CPC’s advice acknowledges that ICMA members may assist a community in the process by serving as an executive recruiter in a consulting capacity, as a volunteer advisor to the process, or a member of the search committee as long as they can be fair and impartial and will not be a candidate for the position. To uphold the values outlined in the ICMA Code of Ethics, members are advised to consider and function within the following parameters and considerations.
Do You Want This Job?
The most important decision for any person responding to a request to help in a search is to decide at the outset whether they will be a candidate or not. Members can volunteer their time to serve as an advisor to the process or as part of a search committee as long as they will not be a candidate for the position. Common sense dictates that you will have a tremendous advantage as a candidate if you develop the candidate profile, have facetime with the governing body, and/or otherwise run the selection. It’s a non-starter from the perspective of Tenet 3 and your obligation to act with integrity and be clear about your intentions. If you are at all uncertain about your interest in the position, the wisest move is to decline the ask to assist.
This requirement holds true as well for the person appointed to serve in the interim role. If you are certain that you don’t want the permanent appointment, you can assist the governing body with the process. If you are uncertain, you should decline to get involved in the search process.
Consider this twist. You are the assistant manager appointed to serve in the interim role. While happy to step up to fill the void for a few months, you have no desire to be the manager. You share that perspective with the governing body at the time they ask you to serve as the interim. After months of running the show though, you now have a change of heart. This is not only fun, but you have total confidence that you can handle the demands of the position. How does your new interest in being considered for the position align with the fact that you have been engaged in the recruitment process? Should the organization scrap the recruitment and start over?
Or what happens if the governing body goes through the entire recruitment process and decides that none of the prospects look as good as their interim manager or the volunteer serving as an advisor? Again, are they ethically required to toss out the entire process, spend time and money to restart in the interests of having a transparent and fair process?
The CPC recommends that if a member, serving as a consultant or in an advisory capacity, is offered the position or decides to apply for the position, he or she should immediately withdraw as an advisor and the position should be re-advertised. In this way, any appearance of improper influence is avoided.
This one is hard. Governing bodies are largely unlikely to restart a process just because the candidate is in an ethical quandary. Driven by the need to fill the position, they may consider the extra cost and delay as outweighing any ethical considerations. The member will then need to choose between accepting the position in a cloudy process or decline. All the more reason to give very careful consideration of your interest in the position at the outset of the process.
The Advisors’ Swim Lane
In an advisory capacity, members need to stay in their lanes. They may assist the governing body to identify the preferred attributes and skills of the next manager, write the job description and job ad, outline the process, develop the schedule, make recommendations about the interview questions and process, review resumes, and evaluate candidates.
But members should draw the line at participating in elements of the recruitment process that influence the selection of the candidate. The selection of the manager is uniquely the responsibility of the governing body. Afterall, they are the ones who must work with and supervise this person. An outsider’s assessment about whether an individual would make a great manager is pretty much irrelevant if the governing body doesn’t agree, is on the fence, or just outright defers to the experts. To that end, an advisor should not recommend candidates, participate in the interview with the governing body, or sit in on the governing body sessions where decisions are made about finalists and the final candidate.
Members who are asked to sit on the selection panel should similarly decline the offer. It’s one thing for a manager to sit on a panel recruiting a police chief in a neighboring community. But sitting on the panel where the manager is influencing the selection of a peer with whom they will be engaging with and even working with on mutual issues is problematic.
At the end of the day, it is the governing body who must live with their choice for manager.
Serving as a Consultant
Members working for a local government who provide this service on a consulting basis should follow the guidelines on outside employment under Tenet 12:
Private Employment. Members should not engage in, solicit, negotiate for, or promise to accept private employment, nor should they render services for private interests or conduct a private business when such employment, service, or business creates a conflict with or impairs the proper discharge of their official duties.
Teaching, lecturing, writing, or consulting are typical activities that may not involve conflict of interest, or impair the proper discharge of their official duties. Prior notification of the appointing authority is appropriate in all cases of outside employment.
Lastly, members who are not officially part of the process may respond to inquiries from elected officials by providing professional advice. But in no case should a member seek out officials to comment on a candidate’s qualifications for the position. ICMA has a great resource designed to assist elected officials facing a vacancy. “Recruitment Guidelines” is available for all to access.
MARTHA PEREGO, ICMA-CM, is director of member services and ethics director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (email@example.com).