Image of two-lane road in the desert

In my time in local government, March meant clearing the winter’s debris from roads, inspecting and repairing parks equipment, and ethics awareness month! The spring season of state association conferences offers the opportunity to meet members where they gather, facilitate presentations on ethics topics, and informally discuss what is occurring in local government organizations.

Common themes of these conversations tend to be roles and responsibilities and sometimes difficult council-manager relations. Borrowing the title of this column from a popular television show, let’s take a closer look at the lanes of local government staff and elected officials. This has been an important issue as evidenced by this idea appearing in the first version of the ICMA Code of Ethics that the membership adopted in 1924. Today, the language in Tenets 5, 6, and 10 has been updated, although the concept is the same — setting the parameters for a successful partnership for the organization and community:

Tenet 5. Submit policy proposals to elected officials; provide them with facts, and technical and professional advice about policy options; and collaborate with them in setting goals for the community and organization.

Tenet 6. Recognize that elected representatives are accountable to their community for the decisions they make; members are responsible for implementing those decisions.

Tenet 10. Resist any encroachment on professional responsibilities, believing the member should be free to carry out official policies without interference, and handle each problem without discrimination on the basis of principle and justice.

This is especially true at this juncture in the profession when elected officials are becoming full-time administrators in the organization or former managers may seek an encore career as an elected official. Tenet 5 discusses the appropriate role for professional staff in providing the background information needed for elected officials to render a decision. Although rarely cited in the ethics complaint process, Tenet 10 gives local government managers a clear lane in which to operate. Concluding this circle for the organization is Tenet 6, which delineates the roles of elected officials and local government managers.

Many employment agreements already cite member adherence to the Code, and some include the Code as an attachment to the agreement to be upfront about the profession’s values. If not, this reference to the Code should be included in the next version of the manager’s employment agreement. The following are some recommended best practices and questions to consider.

At recruitment

  • What is the form of government?
  • To whom or what elected body does this position report?
  • What is funded in the operating budget? What about the Capital Improvement Plan?
    • Does this point to a decline in revenue? Have meetings been civil as cuts are discussed?
    • How might a surplus or future grants be handled?
  • Do the organization’s priorities match your management style?


This can be a tough one — assess the organizational culture. (See Camilla Posthill’s blog post, “Organizational Culture and Ethics: Peanut Butter and Jelly or Oil and Water?” summarizing this topic from the ethics session at the February 2024 Cal-Cities conference.) What is written versus how the organization functions in reality? What improvements can a manager implement?

Does an elected official wander into the administrator’s lane? Kindly address this through education first and believe positive intent. The elected official may not know how to accomplish their goals and aims to be responsive to constituents. If they are already aware of this fact, and the manager has tried unsuccessfully to steer this conversation, or the governing body is not taking sufficient action to curb the behavior, an offsite retreat may be an answer.

Although the manager may have said similar things, it can be beneficial for a neutral third-party, like a consultant, to facilitate this discussion, especially when the situation is heated. This principle is about respect for the law, not power. Elected officials and appointed managers hold a public office. Their duties are outlined in the law, be it a state statute, or a local charter or ordinance. All parties took an oath to uphold the law, and democracy cannot function well when the rule of law gets discarded by those who swore to uphold it.

I look forward to seeing more members at a future state association conference or ICMA’s two Local Government Reimagined (LGR) conferences in April and June. At the LGR conferences, we will discuss the importance of Tenet 10 for the profession which is part of the remaining two principles for the membership to consider in completing this 10-year review cycle. Then, onward to Pittsburgh/Allegheny County for ICMA’s 2024 Annual Conference, where the celebration of the Code’s 100-year milestone continues!

headshot of Jessica Cowles


JESSICA COWLES is ethics director at ICMA (

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