Ethics Matter

2024 Marks 100 Years of Ethical Conduct in the Profession

At the ICMA annual conference in Montreal held in 1924, the membership voted to adopt ICMA’s Code of Ethics, originally conceived as 13 articles. The Code, then as well as now, is the foundation of local government management reflecting our profession’s values.

This first Code laid out a set of commonly held core principles that continue to anchor and guide this profession. Those principles create a set of expectations we adhere to, and it forms a bond with other professionals and the larger society in which we serve. The Code directs local government practitioners to act with integrity in conducting both their personal and professional lives to merit the trust placed in the public position.

The principles outlined in the Code 100 years ago remain timeless. Today, we remain committed to the following, which all come from the first version of Code: integrity, public service, seeking no favor from a public position, exemplary conduct in both personal and professional matters, respecting the role and contributions of elected officials, exercising the independence to do what is right, political neutrality, serving the public equitably and governing body members equally, keeping the community informed about local government matters, and supporting and leading our employees.

The Code Reflected Changes in Society and Emerging Challenges for the Profession

From the Code’s inception, the membership has voted by ballot to amend the Code. Here are the highlights of those changes:

1938. In the first amendment, a preamble was added to better explain the council-manager structure and ICMA’s mission. A statement of the profession’s commitment to merit-based hiring — noting “political, religious, and racial considerations” carry no weight in personnel decisions — was also added. Interestingly, the reference to the manager’s duty to stay out of politics disappeared from the Code. Article 3, while the language has been updated over the years, remains intact today with local government professionals governed by the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships to merit respect and inspire confidence in the organization and the public.

1952. The ongoing debate over the manager’s precise role in the policy arena was reflected in modifications to the policy-related articles. Sagely, the Code advised managers to avoid public conflict with the council on controversial issues. The first reference to the responsibility for continuous professional development also appeared in 1952.

1969. Changes to the ICMA Constitution resulted in membership expansion so the Code stopped using the term “city manager” in favor of the more inclusive reference to “member.”

1972. The profession’s commitment to political neutrality, dropped in the 1938 revision, reappeared in more direct language in a new Tenet 7 that stressed refraining from participation in the member’s employing legislative body, as well as from all partisan political activities that would impair the member’s performance as a professional administrator. The ICMA Executive Board added guidelines to give members practical advice on investments, gifts, job commitment expectations, and election activities. In addition, the board adopted the formal Rules of Procedure for Enforcing the Code of Ethics.

1976. As ultimately unsuccessful efforts were underway to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Code was made gender neutral in recognition of the fact that women were a part of the profession.

1995. The term “municipal” was replaced with “local government.”

1998. An increase in members’ political activity led to an amendment designed to clarify the profession’s commitment to political neutrality in Tenet 7 by emphasizing the broader principle. The new version stated: “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.”

2014. The structured review of the Code with membership began first with Tenet 12. In conversations with the membership, the overwhelming feedback was that Tenet 12, as written, used archaic language and seemed to present two disconnected principles. The prior version (“Seek no favor; believe that personal aggrandizement or profit secured by confidential information or by misuse of public time is dishonest”) was replaced with “Public office is a public trust. A member shall not leverage his or her position for personal gain or benefit.”

2017. Tenet 3, last amended in 1976, is one of the two tenets that applies to all members. (The other is Tenet 1). The revised language strengthened the profession’s commitment to integrity in Tenet 3 and included guidance on workplace relationships.

2018. Tenet 4 was revised to include new guidelines on equity and inclusion with the commitment to serve the best interests of all.

2019. Conduct unbecoming of professionals was addressed in a new guideline. The language to Tenets 1 and 2 was updated to emphasize the profession’s commitment to democratic principles and the value of local government services.

2020. Tenet 5 was revised to reinforce the value of providing technical and professional advice in policy recommendations and collaboration to set goals. Also, the guideline on serving in conflicting roles was revised. Tenet 6 was changed to reinforce that elected officials are accountable to the people for policy decisions.

2023. As part of the comprehensive review of the Code through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, 84% of members casting a ballot voted to approve amendments to Tenets 1, 4, 9 and 11 and the board approved changes to associated guidelines in June 2023. The three-year effort involved feedback sessions with over 600 members, and more than 2,000 members provided a survey response with 2,800 written comments that the board reviewed.

The Plan for 2024 and Beyond

Based on the revisions made in the last 100 years, ensuring that the language reflects the values of the profession has been a long-standing priority for ICMA. As part of the structured review of the Code with the membership, two tenets remain in this effort: Tenet 8 (professional development) and Tenet 10 (encroachment of professional responsibilities). This review will follow what has been done in years past and will be launched at state association conferences in early 2024. The dialogue will help the Executive Board’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) draft language and then survey members on proposed revisions. Ultimately, the membership will vote on any proposed changes by ballot.

As background, guidelines are included for tenets to help members better understand their ethical obligations. Based on recent ethics complaints and numerous member questions, the CPC determined it would revisit Tenet 3’s guideline on professional respect to broaden its scope since it primarily addresses conduct during a recruitment process. The CPC is also reviewing the guideline on conduct unbecoming within today’s landscape since this language is now five years old.

As we start the year anew, let us all take a moment to appreciate how the Code guides our ethical conduct as professionals working in local government. I look forward to celebrating this milestone in the year ahead!

Jessica Cowles headshot


JESSICA COWLES is ethics director at ICMA (

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