Ethics is evergreen

By Peter Stephenson, VRSA Local Government Specialist

It’s always a good time to talk about ethics. Not simply in March when we really begin to ‘Think Spring.’ This important topic should be evergreen, at the forefront of our decision making throughout the year. The focus of my article last March for ethics awareness month was on celebrating an ethical milestone, the 95th anniversary of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Code of Ethics.

As a local government manager, promoting an ethical culture is your leadership responsibility. However, ethical considerations touch everyone in your organization.

Last summer as part of our 2019 Risk Management Leadership Blueprint lunch and learn training sessions, ethical leadership was one of the core components. For those members who attended, I apologize for the quality of my karaoke singing ‘Honesty’ by Billy Joel. Discussing ethics doesn’t have to be like making a trip to the doctor.

Unfortunately, poor choices and bad behaviors remain a challenge as you scan the headlines. Just last month I read an article by The Virginian-Pilot about a local housing authority employee who pled guilty to three counts of embezzlement – and it wasn’t the first time this staff person had stolen from an employer. Therefore, under the terms of the plea agreement, she is forever banned from applying for or taking a job with a federal, state, or local government agency or entity whose responsibilities include the handling or use of public money.

In January, at the Virginia Municipal League (VML) Newly Elected Officials Conference, we were pleased once again to speak on Public Officials Liability. Our special legal counsel, Elizabeth Southall with Zunka, Milnor & Carter, gave an excellent presentation stressing the importance of listening to your attorney and emphasizing that lawsuits are indeed a real bummer! In the time remaining, I mentioned that VRSA had a good sample ‘Code of Ethics’ for elected officials that we are happy to share. Several of our members have adopted it, and it is a great basis to start a conversation on ethics.

Leadership Ethics in Local Government was a keynote topic at the Virginia Local Government Management Association (VLGMA) winter conference, held in Charlottesville earlier this year. The speaker was Dr. Michael A. Gillette with Bioethical Services of Virginia, Inc. Dr. Gillette, a former Mayor of the City of Lynchburg, was engaging with real case study examples and thought-provoking discussion. Takeaways included his views on ‘Moral Management: What Ethical Leaders Do’ and ‘The Structure of Ethical Argument: The Process of Moral Reasoning.’ Any debate team would be proud to have Dr. Gillette as its Captain.

It’s not always comfortable to talk about situations when the moral compass doesn’t point true north. It is imperative though to take the time to have those ethical discussions. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to upholding the public trust. Doing what is right and making difficult decisions on behalf of those we serve is seldom easy.