The Content of Our Character

Following a brief introduction into the structure of U.S. local government, the first lesson I taught students at the China University of Political Science and Law this summer was based on the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) Code of Ethics. I believe no government can be successful for long without the trust of its citizens, and that trust is not possible without consistent ethical conduct by government officials. The Code provides a time-tested standard for appointed managers and is a good starting point for a discussion of ethics and character.

Anyone interested in looking at the ICMA Code can find it at www.icma.org, or you can drop by my office and look at my copy. Most of the provisions of the Code are straightforward and easy to follow. I can’t recall many times in my career when I’ve had reason to question the Code’s provisions or whether my own conduct conformed to its requirements. Most of us know enough to be honest and fair if we expect to be treated similarly. I also know that I would never have been able to enjoy much of a career as a city manager if I had a reputation for dishonesty.

Recently, I have struggled with a tenet of the ICMA Code that I have strongly endorsed and supported throughout my career. Tenet 7 of the Code requires managers to: “Refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators.” This provision has been interpreted by my profession to mean that managers cannot endorse candidates for any elective office, including the U.S. presidency. The thinking behind this tenet is sound because a manager’s advocacy for a particular candidate is likely to alienate supporters of the candidate’s opponent. Additionally, I believe managers should avoid affiliation with a party or label (conservative/liberal), except when participation in primary elections requires a party affiliation to have a meaningful vote. Despite my concerns about the upcoming November election and my impending retirement, I will continue to honor the ICMA Code in recognition of its importance beyond the consequences of any one election.

Good character demands a belief in values that are more important than self-interest. My selfish desire to participate more openly in the political process this year might be personally satisfying, but I believe it would undermine what I have tried to stand for as a city manager throughout my career. I know my influence is limited, and most people won’t care about whether I support a candidate or choose to openly participate in an election. My decision may only be relevant to me and my belief that a minimum standard for my conduct is the need to abide by the lessons I teach.

Education and Experience Matter

I met with two students this week who are interested in careers in local government. College professors and colleagues in my profession occasionally refer young people to me to talk about my experience as a city manager over the past 30 years, and I enjoy the opportunity to share my thoughts. I always emphasize my belief that government professionals need a combination of education and experience to do their jobs well.

Completing an educational program is no guarantee of ability, intelligence, or judgment; but it does demonstrate a commitment to self-improvement, a capacity to learn, and a basic level of accomplishment. An advanced degree usually provides the subject-matter expertise to do complicated jobs that would be difficult without specialized training. Most of us prefer our doctors, pilots, engineers, and others responsible for our health and safety to be well-trained. I think the same principle applies to public sector careers.

I am sometimes surprised by how many people seem to believe that they can and should be able to do a job without any relevant experience. There may be a few savants in the world who can take on a complicated job and master it with their native abilities, but I haven’t met many (if any). Great accomplishment usually requires great effort and a willingness to pay the necessary price. Gaining experience doesn’t necessarily require landing a job in a chosen field, as volunteer activity and internships can lead directly to rewarding jobs. I know of very few city managers who did not complete some form of internship before getting onto a career path.

My interest in local government began with an appointment to the Bend Planning Commission when I was still in high school and grew with a decision to major in political science in college. I eventually ran for a local school board seat, and learned many valuable lessons about governance that still apply in my work today. I also served as an intern for the City of Lowell, Oregon, before I was hired as the city administrator in Oakridge. By the time I was fortunate enough to be hired in Albany, I had earned an undergraduate and graduate degree from an accredited university and worked for more than 25 years in jobs that provided needed experience.

We all have opinions and ideas about government that may be completely valid and useful in developing public policy. Democracy doesn’t work without the contribution of citizens representing a broad range of people and societal interests. Good government, however, also requires the knowledge and skills of people who have done the work necessary to earn their jobs.