Image of manager and staff around table

To celebrate the Code of Ethics centennial, I made it a first-year goal in this role to be visible and meet members where they gather at conferences. So far, I have presented at Cal-Cities; the Virginia Local Government Management Association; the Northwest Regional Manager’s Conference encompassing the states of Alaska, Oregon, and Washington; the Local Government Reimagined Conference in Boston; the Colorado City/County Management Association; and the Indiana Municipal Management Association.

Still to come this year is the Maryland City/County Management Association, the New York City/County Management Association, the Florida City/County Management Association, the Local Government Reimagined Conference in Palm Desert, the South Carolina City/County Management Association, ICMA’s Annual Conference in Pittsburgh, and the Tennessee City Management Association.

I have gathered some common themes through participating in these conferences that I wanted to share with you:

  1. There is honor in being a public servant working toward the betterment of the community every day.
  2. We exercise independence to do what is right even if you pay the ultimate price and are fired for it.
  3. There is a deep commitment to integrity and a drive to use tools like generative artificial intelligence in a way that thoughtfully approaches this emerging technology.
  4. We respect the roles and contributions elected officials make to the community, and to accomplish this, members share information equally with the governing body.
  5. Political neutrality is always the hallmark of a professional local government manager, especially when faced with contentious issues or an election that divides the community rather than unites it.
  6. We equitably serve the public and keep the community informed.
  7. We model excellence by providing support and leading employees.
  8. We never seek any favor from a public position.

These statements are expressed as the profession’s values demonstrated in the Code’s tenets and have been so for 100 years.

If you were to assess how you spent your time in the past day or week, I would guess aspects of personnel management would be top of mind. Perhaps it was looking at how to make employee pay more competitive, reviewing an employee request for training or development with a cost implication, or having a tough conversation that results in an employee’s performance improvement plan.

With this theme, let’s focus on Tenet 11 and the ethical obligation to “manage all personnel matters with fairness and impartiality.” This tenet includes the guideline on diversity and inclusion: “It is the member’s responsibility to recruit, hire, promote, retain, train, and support a diverse workforce at all levels of the organization.”

One outstanding resource I used as a manager was ICMA’s Effective Supervisory Practices book. For the accompanying webinar series,  I joined lead author Michelle Poche Flaherty to help provide training for first-time supervisors. The third webinar in this series will focus on managing employees fairly.

Tenet 11 History

My predecessor Martha Perego wrote about L. P. Cookingham, the legendary Kansas City manager who fought systemic corruption in the city from 1940 to 1959.  For two decades prior to his arrival, political boss Tom Pendergast’s patronage system “bloated the payroll with both no shows and police officers who could neither read nor write. ‘Voluntary’ payroll deductions from the police raised $78,000 in donations to Pendergast’s political party one year… The new police chief, a former FBI agent, reported receiving $150,000 in bribes the first five weeks on the job. . . and death threats!”

Pendergast was eventually convicted of federal tax evasion. A reform-minded mayor and city council hired Cookingham. Cookingham quickly took several steps to reform the organization and two of those steps relate to personnel management:

Build a competent leadership team. Cookingham selected all the new department directors, the former having been fired by the interim city manager at council’s insistence to rid the organization of Pendergast legacies. Not all were familiar with municipal management, but they were competent and understood for whom they worked.

Right size the workforce with the right skill set. In their first six months on the job, the new department directors fired more than 2,200 employees who were not needed, not qualified, or viewed as not loyal. That was one-third of the workforce.”

As a reaction to that state of municipal affairs, the Code’s 1938 version included the principle,

“The city manager handles all matters of personnel on the basis of merit. Political, religious, and racial considerations carry no weight in appointments, salary increases, promotions, and discipline in the municipal service.”

It has been amended over the years and through the comprehensive Code review from 2020 to 2023, the membership overwhelmingly approved new tenet language: “Manage all personnel matters with fairness and impartiality.”

In 1972, the guideline on equal opportunity to Tenet 11 was added:

Equal Opportunity. A member should develop a positive program that will assure meaningful employment opportunities for all segments of the community. It shall be the intent to provide equality of opportunity in employment for all persons; to prohibit discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, political affiliation, physical handicaps, age, or marital status in all aspects of personnel policies, programs, practices, and operations; and to promote the full realization of equal opportunity in employment through continuing programs of affirmative action at every level with the organization. It should be the member’s personal and professional responsibility to actively recruit and hire minorities and women for their professional staffs and throughout his organization.

The guideline's language was revised in 2009:

Equal Opportunity.  All decisions pertaining to appointments, pay adjustments, promotions, and discipline should prohibit discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, political affiliation, disability, age, or marital status.

As part of the review process that culminated in membership voting to amend the existing Tenet 11 language, the Board adopted revisions to the guideline at the Committee on Professional Conduct’s recommendation:

Diversity and Inclusion: “It is the member’s responsibility to recruit, hire, promote, retain, train, and support a diverse workforce at all levels of the organization.”

The commitment to managing personnel matters with fairness and impartiality dates to the 1938 version of the Code and has been a defining principle of the council-manager form of government. It is “what you know” not “who you know” that continues to set the standard for this profession.

Jessica Cowles headshot


JESSICA COWLES is ethics director at ICMA (


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