Celebrating an Ethical Milestone

By Peter Stephenson, VMLIP Local Government Specialist

March is Ethics Awareness Month – and 2019 marks the 95th Anniversary of the adoption and establishment of the Code of Ethics by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

As an ICMA Life Member, I will continue to observe the following Tenets as I interact and consult with our member local governments, authorities and political subdivisions across the Commonwealth:

Tenet 1 – Be dedicated to the concepts of effective and democratic local government by responsible elected officials and believe that professional general management is essential to the achievement of this objective.

Tenet 2 – Affirm the dignity and worth of the services rendered by government and maintain a constructive, creative and practical attitude toward local government affairs and a deep sense of social responsibility as a trusted public servant.

Tenet 3 – Demonstrate by word and action the highest standards of ethical conduct and integrity in all public, professional, and personal relationships in order that the member may merit the trust and respect of the elected and appointed officials, employees, and the public.

Tenet 4 – Serve the best interests of the people.

Tenet 5 – Submit policy proposals to elected officials; provide them with facts and advice on matters of policy as a basis for making decisions and setting community goals; and uphold and implement local government policies adopted by elected officials.

Tenet 6 – Recognize that elected representatives of the people are entitled to the credit for the establishment of local government policies; responsibility for policy execution rests with the members.

Tenet 7 – Refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators.  Refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body.

Tenet 8 – Make it a duty continually to improve the member’s professional ability and to develop the competence of associates in the use of management techniques.

Tenet 9 – Keep the community informed on local government affairs; encourage communication between the citizens and all local government officers; emphasize friendly and courteous service to the public; and seek to improve the quality and image of public service.

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.

Tenet 11 – Handle all matters of personnel on the basis of merit so that fairness and impartiality govern a member’s decisions, pertaining to appointments, pay adjustments, promotions, and discipline.

Tenet 12 – Public office is a public trust.  A member shall not leverage his or her position for personal gain or benefit.

For each tenet there are also adopted guidelines, first adopted by the ICMA Executive Board in 1972 which further elaborate on the above tenets.  These guidelines were most recently revised in June 2018. ICMA offers ethics training and technical assistance for local governments.

VML Insurance Programs (VMLIP) also offers a variety of training resources to members on the subject of ethics. From a DVD on Government Ethics, to online courses focused on ethics in the workplace and law enforcement ethics, these can be used to promote and train on ethics in the workplace.

Promoting an ethical culture is certainly a key leadership responsibility to be taken seriously.

One of my proudest moments as a manager was being in attendance for swearing in ceremonies for new law enforcement officers, before the badge of honor was pinned on him/her.  Part of the oath is to uphold the public trust.

The public trust is paramount and at the center of all we do as part of public service for our citizens. This trust takes years to build and only moments to tarnish or severely damage in our communities.

Unfortunately, I have seen local government employees, elected and appointed officials do just that with a lapse in judgement, sometimes momentary.  These have been some of the saddest moments I have experienced.

Careers can be ruined in a heartbeat, families upended, friends lost, reputations destroyed.  Self-justifying behaviors can turn into ethical nightmares, beyond the point of no return.

Reputational risk is real.

The old question was how would people react if what you said or did ended up on the front page of the newspaper?  Now the question remains the same – but with social media what you say and do can end up online for the world to see in a matter of seconds, and remain accessible forever.

If you feel like you are fast approaching a ‘gray area’ take a time out, seek advice, talk about it with your colleagues or contact me with your ethical dilemma.  Sometimes there is no simple its right or its wrong answer. No one said that ethics is easy, but we should all challenge each other to keep it at the forefront of our decision making as individuals and as organizations.