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.