In my role as ICMA ethics director, I hear about the good, the bad, and sometimes the very ugly conflicts of interest in the local government management profession. By far, members conduct themselves ethically and there are lots of daily examples of small victories that are never heralded with fanfare — simply those in local government management and staff identifying conflicts, resolving them, and carrying out their roles with excellence.
How do members get there? They take advantage of every resource available, whether that is asking me for ethics advice, talking with an ICMA regional director or senior advisor, or reaching out to a trusted colleague. One of the ways this profession is different from others is that the work we do is always in the public eye and can enhance public trust or conversely tear it down.
By its definition, a conflict of interest occurs when personal interests or loyalties compete with professional obligations. This is why the Code of Ethics mentions conflicts of interest or the appearance of one over 10 times and includes guidelines to address conflicts that may stem from working in your official capacity, vendor dealings, giving policy advice, advocating for your personal cause, personal relationships, running for office, investments, private employment, and confidential information, just to name a few examples.
This month’s column will center on questions and answers regarding Tenet 7 with its focus on political neutrality and Tenet 12 on endorsements. The following reflect the substance of questions asked and how staff answered them with the ICMA Executive Board’s Committee on Professional Conduct providing oversight of the ethics program.
The Importance of the Emphasis on Political Neutrality in Tenet 7
As a refresher, the language of Tenet 7 reads: “Refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators. Refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body.”
“We contract with the county for law enforcement services. Up until recently, the sheriff’s position was not elected, and this is changing soon. I expect my municipality will contract with the newly established Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services. Can I contribute to a candidate for sheriff?”
You should not make a campaign contribution because the Code does not permit doing so. The manager should be politically neutral and making any campaign contribution puts you on record through public financial disclosures as providing your monetary support for this candidate, even if this person is not on your employing governing body.
Tenet 7 and its associated guideline on elections reads: “Members share with their fellow citizens the right and responsibility to vote. However, in order not to impair their effectiveness on behalf of the local governments they serve, they shall not participate in political activities to support the candidacy of individuals running for any city, county, special district, school, state or federal offices. Specifically, they shall not endorse candidates, make financial contributions, sign or circulate petitions, or participate in fund-raising activities for individuals seeking or holding elected office.”
“Our local library serves the surrounding area, including the community where I work, and operates as an independent body with its own elected board and a standalone budget. It has limited dealings with my community. One of their elected board members is resigning and my spouse was asked to consider applying for the seat. My spouse has longstanding ties to the community.
If my spouse were to proceed, I see the following issues. Is there anything else I should pay attention to in advance?
• I would need to disclose the candidacy to my elected officials and someone else from my community would need to handle any official interactions (they are very limited) with the library board.
• I cannot support the campaign financially or via endorsement. No yard signs, etc. Essentially, I would treat my spouse like any other candidate who approaches me while running for office.”
You are correct: you should disclose your spouse’s candidacy to your elected officials. You have the opportunity to talk about the value of political neutrality and your commitment to it to your elected officials, and that you have a Code of Ethics that governs your personal and professional conduct. You are thinking about how to handle interactions with the library board, and I would encourage you to think about where there may be any overlap between the entities, such as shared service agreements, etc., to avoid any conflicts of interest in appearance or actuality.
Your spouse’s candidacy for library board should not receive any special treatment from you, and your spouse should be treated like any other candidate that approaches you while running for office. As you explain the Code to your elected officials, you may pay particular attention to Tenet 7, especially the guideline on elections that prohibits endorsing candidates, making financial contributions, signing or circulating petitions, or participating in fundraising activities for individuals seeking or holding elected office.
“We have a local sales tax election. Can a city manager put a ‘yes’ campaign sign in the yard? Is the expectation that staff will do the same? Our state does not allow this. Does the Code and personal advocacy of issues guideline allow this action?”
While the guideline on advocating for issues directly related to your organization references “assisting” the governing body, members can advocate a position on a ballot measure as well. If it is an issue the organization has worked to advance because it will benefit the city, then the manager can be an advocate for the issue by talking about it with residents, putting up a yard sign, donating to a PAC that supports the issue, etc. All those activities must comply with the law.
Before members decide to actively engage, consider how the engagement will be perceived and tailor the approach accordingly. For example, if the issue is divisive in the community or if the governing body is divided, the member might want to limit the engagement to just providing information.
As it relates to staff, it is not wise for the manager to ask or encourage staff to get involved in the issue beyond the scope of the staff members’ responsibility. Even a suggestion coming from the manager can be awkward for staff. They may not really want to get involved but feel they lack a choice if the suggestion comes from the manager.
“A U.S. senator’s office asked me as the county administrator to provide a quote of support for introduced bipartisan legislation. I am checking that this quote will not cause an ethics violation. I will also ask my governing body to approve it.”
You should decline to provide this quote. Tenet 7 advises members not to engage when activities may undermine public confidence in political neutrality as an administrator and member. The elected governing body and county stakeholders likely have many viewpoints of their own and on this bipartisan legislation.
The draft quote is static regardless of how this legislation unfolds and would likely be in a media release and/or online offering your support. The ability to engage with all stakeholders and make decisions for the organization and recommendations to the governing body that come from a place of political neutrality distinguishes managers from other professions. In declining to offer this quote, you may have an opportunity to explain you are committed to the principles outlined in the Code of Ethics.
An option would be for your board president or chief elected body official to provide a quote on this legislation instead of you as an administrator. In this approach, communication would be elected official to another elected official instead of administrator to elected official.
“I have an interest in possibly serving the community where I live (not where I work) in the capacity as a parks and recreation committee member. This is an elected position, but not enough people are candidates for the open seats, so I was considering a write-in campaign or possibly being appointed.”
There is certainly an understanding of the wish to give back to the community where you live as an expert in local government and public servant. The charter governs the roles and responsibilities where the town manager is named. There are two issues involved: Tenet 7 has a guideline that prohibits members from running for office so you should not do this. Second, there is this issue of professional respect for the town manager. There is not a guarantee you would see things the same way, especially finances and personnel. Not running for office prevents future conflicts with the manager that can damage the reputation of the profession and cause residents to lack confidence in the manager.
“The county executive is retiring, and the current county manager has been informed that their services will not be retained beyond the election. The candidate expected to win the county executive seat has gauged my interest in that position or that of the deputy. I have kept my current council well informed on the subject and several recommended me. I have played no role in any election activity, have never donated to a campaign, nor spoken about candidates in any way. The candidate personally invited me to their election night party. I believe the event is part of the ‘campaign,’ but it does not take place until after polling has ended.”
Election night parties are campaign events and often paid for with campaign and donor funds—everything from the rental space to food and beverage to entertainment. You are correct to interpret this as a campaign event and the invitation to attend should be declined. In doing so, you should explain your commitment to political neutrality means you need to decline the invitation.
This demonstrates a commitment to ethical principles in ICMA’s Code of Ethics. While the county executive may not agree with this approach, this individual will understand your parameters, especially as you lay out an ethical foundation for the future with this person.
Tenet 12 Offers Guidance on Vendor Relations
As background, Tenet 12 reads: “Public office is a public trust. A member shall not leverage his or her position for personal gain or benefit.” The guideline on endorsements contains advice for vendor relationships: “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 a 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.”
“I host a podcast on local government issues and have a great sponsor for one of my episodes. Can I include a clip in an episode of a manager talking about what the sponsor did for their municipality? I see endorsements/testimonials on the website of the sponsoring company and wonder if this would be treated the same way. Does it make a difference if it is an elected official or staff person rather than a manager making the endorsement?”
A member should not appear in a video or endorse this business in any way. This is not permitted under ICMA’s Code of Ethics in Tenet 12 where you included the guideline on endorsements. The elected official is not part of ICMA, so ICMA does not have jurisdiction over the person’s conduct. Since this is the situation, the elected official could factually and professionally appear in a video discussing how the jurisdiction is using the vendor’s product or service. Even if the staff member is not a member of ICMA, I would advise against this route because there may be personnel guidelines that govern this conduct as well.
“A vendor designed a seal for the city. We were pleased and the vendor asked me to promote this work.”
This would be endorsing this vendor’s services and the guideline to Tenet 12 offers guidance in this situation. You should not promote this work on social or other media.
“I’ve been asked by an employee from my previous jurisdiction for a reference letter regarding a promotion opportunity in that same community. This employee’s service was consistently exemplary, and it would be from my official capacity (i.e., not personal). Is this acceptable to do so on my current jurisdiction’s letterhead?”
You should not write a reference letter for this former employee in a professional capacity on your current jurisdiction’s letterhead because it would be considered an endorsement. You can serve as a professional reference during a recruitment process. Tenet 12 is applicable with the guideline on endorsement copied below.
As background, there are very limited circumstances when it would be acceptable for a member to offer an endorsement. Provided the member does not receive any compensation, a member may endorse books or other publications; professional development or educational services a recognized educational institution or nonprofit membership organization like ICMA provides; or products and/or services where the local government has a direct economic interest such as in the case of a city-owned convention center. Members are free to provide a verbal reference for vendors during a competitive procurement process or in response to a direct inquiry, as well as serve as a professional reference during a recruitment process.
As we celebrate the Code’s 100-year anniversary of “A Century Strong: Shaping Leaders, Transforming Communities,” we will highlight additional questions from members, guest articles, and much more to commemorate this milestone!
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