Ethics is alive and well

By Peter Stephenson, VRSA Local Government Specialist

The month of March is more than celebrating my birthday, it’s also Ethics Awareness Month!

With all the turmoil and lack of civility in the world these days, it’s easy to surmise that ethical behavior is dying. However, like Mark Twain, I am pleased to share that “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” when it comes to ethical pursuits.

My confidence was restored during a recent visit with two of our members – the towns of Blacksburg and Pearisburg.

The Town of Pearisburg, utilizing the VRSA Local Government Consulting services I offer, invited me to participate in a retreat with their newly constituted town council and appointed staff. My presentation and discussion with them included keys to establishing effective working relationships with staff, the public, and importantly amongst themselves as a new team of elected officials. Beyond my three R’s of understanding Roles and Responsibilities, and showing each other Respect – the cornerstone of success is modeling ethical behavior as visible pillars of the community.

We spent time reviewing the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Code of Ethics, which their Town Manager Todd Meredith hangs on the wall in his office for all to see. I shared our VRSA sample Code of Ethics that is available for review and customization on the VRSA website for use by a governing body. Council members openly expressed pride in their accomplishments and desire to spend time doing the right things, with a full understanding of reputational risk and liability.

I left with their commitment to work together for the best interests of the town as a whole, saying to myself, ‘they truly get it.’

A few days prior to this council retreat, I reached out to a long-time friend and former colleague, Blacksburg Town Manager Marc Verniel. I ran across one of their town documents a few years ago while researching Blacksburg’s Town Council Handbook.

I was curious if it had been updated, as I have often shared this with others during my visits and consultations – discussing how effective it has been in terms of adopted policies and protocols therein. The handbook comprehensively details expected ethical conduct.

Surprisingly, Marc informed me that the handbook had been reviewed, edited, and readopted that very week by the town council. It was not a long-forgotten guide but rather a refreshed, relevant document. During my visit and conversation with Marc, he confirmed that the handbook had been effective, proven again by each of the seven council members signing their name to it as agreed upon model rules of engagement in serving their community.

If your locality has adopted an ethics code, take the time to review and update it at least every other year following elections with each newly constituted council or board. Should you not have something similar in place, there’s no time like the present to begin the discussion. I’ll be happy to help you get the ball rolling, reach out to me via e-mail.

At VRSA, Stephenson focuses on building relationships with members, local and regional government organizations, and associations to help them protect their assets and achieve their strategic goals.