By Martha Perego, ICMA-CM
The new year brings with it a new or newly constituted governing body for many local governments. In turn, those elected officials may be supported by a leadership team of long-tenured staff or by a team with some staff who are new to a community.
The organizational stuff of strategic planning, goal setting, and team building should take place so that the organization can create a cohesive team with a clear future forward path.
Regardless of how much definition and structure is given to roles and responsibilities in that team-building exercise, individuals will drift into other lanes. It's human nature. After all, we aren't technology-driven, self-driving cars.
For the professional staff, it's critical to resist "lane drift" especially when it truly encroaches on a manager's legal and ethical responsibility. Resisting encroachment on their responsibilities is more than just a battle over turf. Consider this real world scenario:
The national search to find the next police chief for a city produced two finalists—a highly rated deputy from another city and an internal candidate with 25 years of service in the department. The city manager, who was responsible for the selection, had a tough decision to make as both were highly regarded leaders.
On any given day, being a police chief is a challenging job. Whoever was selected for this community would face the daunting task of winning back the public's trust. A series of high-profile incidents had the department and the city's leadership under intense public scrutiny. With this in mind, the city manager decided that the external candidate had the greatest likelihood of success on all fronts.
After the Choice
Decision made, the manager started the process of informing the elected officials with a call first to the mayor. The manager summarized the key reasons that led to the choice, noting that the formal announcement would come the next day.
In clear and uncertain terms, the mayor opposed the manager's decision. No amount of persuasion or comparison of the candidate's attributes would sway the mayor's opinion.
Tired of the back and forth, the mayor finally told the manager to choose the internal candidate. The manager informed the mayor that she was sticking with her initial decision. In closing the conversation, the mayor alluded to a future conversation with the council about the manager's "leadership style." After the manager announced her selection the next day, the mayor publicly criticized the decision.
The conversation about the manager's leadership style—it never took place. The mayor didn't get traction from his posturing. The council as well as the public backed the manager on this one.
This true story is probably more commonplace than one would imagine. Elected officials cross the line into management's realm. Managers drift into policy decisions that are the responsibility of elected officials. We are navigating along a two-way street, except that managers generally don't have the same level of horsepower or leverage to use with their bosses.
Peace or Principle
If this happens all the time, why fight it? Isn't peace between the parties more important than principles? The answer is no! This is a principle worth fighting for and here is why:
• 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, local charter, ordinance, or other. And all parties took an oath to uphold the law. Democracy doesn't function well when the rule of law gets discarded by those who swore to uphold it.
• Governance and oversight matter. Elected officials perform a critical governance role in providing oversight of the management of the organization. The door for abuse and corruption is wide open when managers play both the management and oversight role.
• Arbitrary decisions are costly. An actual or perceived lack of fairness or equity in actions taken by a public agency, especially in dealing with residents or staff, can create a real financial liability for the organization.
• Assume positive intent. Most elected and appointed officials are well intentioned. They drift into the other's territory due more to a lack of understanding of their role than a desire to be Machiavellian. Coaching helps.
Local government professionals have an ethical obligation to resist encroachment on their duties. There are real consequences to the organizations and the public they serve when they lack the courage to do their jobs. There is no place in the profession for a "go along to get along" mentality.
Martha Perego, ICMA-CM, is ethics director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (firstname.lastname@example.org).