ETHICS MATTER! Surviving Election Season

Practical ways to avoid missteps

ARTICLE | Jul 1, 2019

By Martha Perego, ICMA-CM

In any election season, the probability that the campaign trail will lead to the steps of your county courthouse or city hall is high. Although broader in its original context, the old adage that “all politics is local” has never been truer.

Today, we have no shortage of issues to motivate, galvanize, and polarize a community and the candidates for elected office who want to represent that community. In the middle of this stands local government staff. These smart, committed people have their personal position on the issues and candidates.

They also have a critical job to do in the public domain. Their job is to serve all the residents in a fair and equitable manner. They provide impartial service and recommendations based on professional expertise.

To succeed, they need to be unbiased in both appearance and in fact. One effective way to achieve this is to be politically neutral; that is, to stay out of the process of electing any candidates to any public office.

To be clear, staff share with their fellow residents the right and responsibility to vote for the candidate of choice in local, state, and national races. Staff also have the legal right to engage during nonwork hours in political activity to support a candidate for publicly elected office.

A Balanced Approach

The legal right to be politically active should be balanced with the obligation to ensure that personal political engagement does not interfere with the local government’s operations or reflect negatively on the organization’s reputation. The higher up in the organization chart, the greater the exposure, risk, and impact.

Consider sharing this advice to address common challenges with your staff:

Campaign research

What if a candidate asks staff for information, data, and research about local government operations to use in the campaign? Context and how the information is being used matters.

Residents have the right to obtain information from the locality. Governing body members have a business reason to request research from the staff; however, there is a distinction in responding to these requests versus one from a publicly announced candidate.

Responsibility for gathering information to run a campaign rests with the candidate. Public resources should not be used to assist an individual candidate.

Staff should decline the request and direct the candidate to publicly available information on the website. The candidate also has the option to submit a public records request and pay the associated fees for the documents.

Dealing with the media

What if the media calls to “fact check” a candidate’s campaign statement or to ask about his or her accomplishments and qualifications for office? All media requests should be directed to a central point of contact in the organization. That contact should decline to comment, referencing the staff’s commitment to political neutrality.

Fake news and bad facts

What if the facts are totally wrong and reflect poorly on the organization? The manager will want to carefully consider whether to issue a public statement to correct the candidate’s statement.

Part of the risk assessment will be the potential for staff to be drawn into the campaign. Remember the other old adage: It is easier to stay out than to get out.

It is important to remember that candidates bear sole responsibility for doing their homework to ensure that they present accurate and correct information.

Attendance and networking at events

Decline any invitation from organizations or community groups to attend an event during the campaign season when the guest speaker is a candidate for political office. It is totally acceptable and even often expected that staff will be out in the community attending civic functions to provide information on community matters, to represent the organization, and to network.

Being present with a candidate during the campaign season, however, can inadvertently draw staff into the campaign.

Political debates

Forums or debates sponsored by independent organizations provide everyone with the opportunity to learn more about the candidates and their positions. For that reason, staff may want to attend as either a private citizen or a staff member.

What’s important is to keep a low profile and be prepared to respond if someone tries to draw you into the debate. An effective response: “I am just here to learn more about the issues and have no comment.”

Donations, lawn signs, bumper stickers, and “behind the scenes” efforts

As noted above, staff have the legal right to engage in campaign activity after work hours. Weigh the likelihood that what you consider to be “private and personal” will be publicly known. Here are a few notable issues:

  • Campaign donations are not private. If your name is on the check, that is what will be on the publicly accessible website.
  • Are you known in the community because of your work with the city or county? Are you a resident? If yes, then that yard sign is a pretty visible statement of support.
  • If the car with the bumper sticker is the one you commute to work in, skip the bumper sticker.
  • There may be opportunities to contribute to a campaign in the background and out of public view. The concern with this approach is the reality that if you are engaged with others, news of your involvement will leak out.

If you have encountered other challenges, don’t hesitate to share.

Martha Perego, ICMA-CM, is ethics director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (mperego@icma.org).

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