Most of you are probably familiar with the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life and its protagonist George Bailey. As you will recall, George needs assistance from a helpful guardian angel to fully appreciate the value he brings to his family, friends, and community during a period of personal crises. As George erred in estimating his impact, we in this profession run the risk of not fully appreciating the importance of ICMA’s Code of Ethics and what our professional lives would be like without it.
While we are hopefully familiar with and understand the value of the Code, do we fully appreciate what our profession and our professional lives would be without it? Is it possible that we might even occasionally resent the Code for limiting our flexibility in certain matters?
While I was familiar with the Code and always had it prominently displayed in my office as a city manager, the value of the Code was really brought home to me during a challenging period in my career dealing with an “outlier” mayor. This individual consistently stretched the limits of his legitimate role by attempting to interfere with the management of the city, while also attempting to use the city’s power and influence for his personal benefit. While the city attorney and I did our best to block his efforts, we eventually had to conclude that his conduct was not changing.
The Code helped me fully understand that I had a professional obligation to take action (in this case working in conjunction with the city attorney to request a district attorney’s review). This eventually led to my testimony before a grand jury and at a superior court trial. The mayor’s defense attorney’s strategy was to impugn our motivations for reporting the mayor. At a pivotal point during the trial, the assistant district attorney asked how he could respond to the question of WHY I would be willing to take the risk of reporting one of my elected bosses. My response was that my action was not only, in my opinion, the right thing to do, but was required by the ICMA Code of Ethics. That resulted in the Code being entered into evidence of my professional obligations. The trial ended with the mayor being convicted and removed from office. I never took the Code for granted again.
Even if you never need to rely on the Code in this way, do we fully appreciate the Code by reflecting on what our profession would be like without this guidepost for appropriate professional conduct? Unfortunately, even with the Code, we have too many examples of ICMA members and nonmembers with leadership roles in local government who fail in their ethical obligations. However, how many more bad examples would the profession suffer without the Code serving as a resource to help all of us conduct ourselves ethically and honorably?
- We did not have the Code to include with our employment agreements to clearly communicate in advance our professional standards and expectations to prospective employers?
- We did not have it as a resource to help respond to requests or pressure to act inappropriately? In essence to use it as a “professional shield.”
- We did not have it as a resource to help communicate our ethical obligations and promote ethical conduct among the employees of our organizations?
- We did not have it to help communicate to our residents/constituents the high ethical obligations to which we hold ourselves and our organizations?
- We did not have it as a resource to help explain to the press our professional obligations when asked to explain why we did or did not take certain actions?
- We did not have it as a standard to hold accountable individuals in local government leadership positions?
We can make sure we do not take the Code of Ethics for granted by:
- Reading it regularly (including its guidelines).
- Displaying it prominently.
- Communicating it to key audiences.
- Following the work of the ICMA Executive Board, the Committee on Professional Conduct, and the ICMA staff in reviewing, updating, and enforcing the Code.
We should also not take for granted the hard work of the ICMA staff and executive board in keeping the Code up to date and relevant in changing times, but also their very challenging role of investigating complaints regarding Code violations and taking enforcement action when necessary.
So while I hope you will never need to have the Code entered into evidence at a trial to justify your conduct, I hope you do use it in all the various ways it can be helpful to you as a person and professional. And above all, never take it for granted.