Promoting an Ethical Local Government

Ethical behavior, checks and balances, and sensitivity to areas prone to corruption help to ensure good government

By Jerry Newfarmer | Mar 1, 2021 | ARTICLE

Three Cincinnati City Councilmembers were indicted on charges of corruption in the past year. This comes as a shock to Cincinnatians, who have long taken pride in good government. As someone who works across the United States with local governments, long the most trusted level of government in America, and as a former Cincinnati city manager, I find it especially disappointing.

Nearly 100 years ago, Cincinnati rebelled at the outright political corruption of the Boss Cox machine and adopted the council-manager form of government in a new city charter to reform the way the government worked. In recent years, the charter was amended to strengthen the role of the mayor in relation to councilmembers, resulting in increased politicization of decision-making. The hands-on involvement of elected leaders in development deals opened the doors to potential corruption.

The professional city manager, steeped in and committed to the ICMA Code of Ethics, is the foundation of good government. Indeed, there is evidence to support the assertion that the council-manager form of government promotes ethical behavior, which was a goal of Richard Childs when he originated the idea of the council-manager plan in the Progressive Era more than a century ago. Two scholars from the School of Government at the University of North Carolina, Kimberly L. Nelson and Whitney S. Alfonso, published a study in 2019 that found that corruption was 57 percent less likely in the council-manager form of government than in the mayor-council form, where decision-making is driven by political considerations.

So how do managers promote ethical behavior, both from the people who report to them and the ones who don’t? I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some ideas.

The professional manager commits to leadership based on good management principles and ethical behavior.

That commitment includes making appointments to municipal leadership positions based on professional qualifications and making policy recommendations to the governing body in a transparent way based on best practices. The role requires managers to stand up without fear or favor to inappropriate political interference with good government practices, even when their jobs are on the line.

Ethical behavior starts with an emphasis on ethics in discussions with candidates for elective office and with new employees. Setting the tone from the outset is essential. It helps for new employees to receive guidelines and expectations about how they are to manage the demands of the public and elected officials without compromising themselves, and all employees should receive regular updates and reminders about possible conflicts of interest. The election season is a great time to remind employees not to campaign for anyone or display candidates’ yard signs or bumper stickers.

The engagement of the full governing body in strategic planning can set the framework for governing through adoption of transparent policies. This engagement serves to educate members about norms, ethics, and other expectations. Many newly elected officials have little or no experience in politics; some are accustomed to operating as advocates, and they don’t always appreciate the influence that goes with their new position. Encouraging a retreat or collaborative effort with the governing body when new councilmembers are seated is an excellent time to help new members learn about their role and responsibilities, and the law (and remind returning councilmembers as well). It is an ideal time to discuss ethical dilemmas and potential conflicts of interest so all councilmembers are better prepared for issues that may arise.

The professional manager is particularly sensitive to areas where the potential for corruption exists.

It did not surprise me that the arrests of Cincinnati councilmembers were connected to proposed development projects. When elected officials take part in negotiating development deals, it creates a situation that is ripe for corruption: developers and their lobbyists are seeking city approval to build their projects and succeed financially, often with millions of dollars at stake, while politicians are looking to the next election and the campaign financing needed to win it.

The good government alternative is for the city or county administration, led by the professional manager (including planners, engineers, and attorneys), to do the job of implementing adopted development policies. (Every municipality has them!) When a development is proposed, elected officials should be hands off. Staff should apply adopted policies without fear or favor. Staff professionals have nothing to gain, financially or otherwise, in the approval or denial of an application. They can evaluate the proposal, then put their recommendations in writing for anyone to review in a transparent and public way. Beware the project that is rushed to the council, with elected officials being told they have to approve it right away or else!

Of course, the municipality’s money is a prime area of temptation. The professional manager knows about the importance of internal financial controls and, in detail, what they are and how they actually operate. The local exchequer can be ripped off when checks and balances are not built into the system.

The well-trained professional manager for a city or county should similarly be knowledgeable about how each area of public service should operate, what the best practices are, and what inferior performance looks like. That’s a tall order. Cities and counties are mini conglomerates, operating many different lines of business. Police service is qualitatively different from library service; maintaining public works infrastructure is markedly different work from planning and managing development on private property. It’s true that corruption is a greater risk in some areas than in others, but poor performance because of corrupt or inept leadership can disserve the public just as badly, especially over time.

Good government is based on every leader’s commitment to the good of the community and controlled with checks and balances to ensure good behavior.

In recent years there have been initiatives in many cities to dilute the role of the elected councilmember or professional manager and to strengthen the role of the mayor. But all have an important role to play; elected council or commission members who represent the people in making policy, the mayor or commission president with a unique political leadership role, and the professional manager, charged with operating the government. Together, they ensure a system that is balanced; and by coupling that balanced system with the shared commitment of all to transparency and openness, good government is the result.

Proponents of placing more power in the hands of a mayor argue that elected officials are accountable to voters. But the professional city or county manager, serving at will, is readily accountable week in and week out, without having to wait until the next election, usually years away. At the same time, the professional manager is committed to operate the government, free from corrupting political “messing around,” serving as a buffer between the competitive world of electoral politics and the steady professionalism of staff, with the aim of accommodating both within an ethical framework. Sustaining clean, open government is best assured with a professional manager bound by the ICMA Code of Ethics.

It can be a difficult point to understand, both for elected officials and the public. I am encouraged that in cities such as Sacramento, where voters have recently had two opportunities to increase the power of the mayor, voters chose to preserve the balanced structure with a professional manager. It’s incumbent upon those of us in the profession to articulate this argument whenever the opportunity arises: the council-manager form of government reduces instances of corruption.

JERRY NEWFARMER, president and CEO of Management Partners, served as Cincinnati’s city manager after serving as city manager in San Jose and Fresno, California.

 

Advertisement

You may also be interested in