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.
Like all of the other tenets in this series, Tenant 7 is comprised of issues that are 1) clearly black or white and 2) admittedly and frustratingly gray. To give these principles meaning and context, managers ought to reflect on each of them and assess their impact to our respective communities and governing bodies.
Some of these tenets are common sense, especially in light of our duty to be impartial and serve the council regardless of our personal desires. For example, members must never become engaged in the election of their governing body. This principle expressly prohibits things like financial contributions, back room assistance on issues, and displaying signs or giving endorsements to a candidate. In addition, a member should not file to run for an elected position or office, no matter how far removed from the city it may be or even seem to be. The same is true for campaign contributions, hosting or appearing on the list of sponsors for campaign events, posting signs, or volunteering to work on a campaign for any election including county, state or federal. Though you certainly have a constitutional right to show support for a state of national political candidate on your own time, such affiliations can hinder a manager’s ability to conduct business in the non-partisan environment of a city. Effectively, when one becomes a member of our profession, this right is checked at the door so we may better serve our residents and the governing body.
While the above concepts are fairly straight forward, there are other restrictions that, in practice, can be somewhat murkier.
Suppose a county or state official wants to conduct a “get to know you” event for business leaders – should you participate? If it is clearly not a fundraising event, then the temptation would be to accept. But we all know these events can begin one way and lead elsewhere. That is one of the defining attributes of our profession: not only being responsible for avoiding actual entanglements, but also things that are perceived to be entanglements. Therefore, members must remain vigilant with respect to this principle and withdraw or disassociate themselves before it evolves into a campaign event. Moreover, a member cannot justify their participation under the guise of helping the community. Maintaining relationships with state and regionally elected officials and their staffs are essential to our respective communities receiving needed funding or services. It is nevertheless important to keep tenet 7 at the forefront of one’s thinking. One good strategy is to work with your governing body and educate them about our Code of Ethics and why it is important that you stay impartial. Instead, if possible, help them to be effective in this role of elected officials’ relationships. It is through them that we can best adhere to tenets 4 and 5 (serve the best interest of the community and implement public policy) within the context of tenet 7.
Managers must also be careful with regard to the promotion of bond elections. Clearly a bond election is intended to implement both tenants 4 and 5, and, in that light, a manager must support their elected officials in formulating presentations, responding to inquiries, and preparing for question and answer events. However, state law is clear in that public funds cannot be spent for promotion of the bond election. There is no supporting the issue “on your own time” or “exercising your rights,” it is a simple black and white issue. Managers must be cautious in what they say and how they say it.
Perhaps the most difficult issue of all is one of personal advocacy or involvement in issues totally unrelated to one’s community, which ICMA addressed in a recent change. A member could, as an example, advocate for special needs children or for university funding without violating tenet 7. However, the manager must always be careful not to allow these issues impair their duty to the community and governing body, and to be sensitive to where an advocacy issue may be divisive within the community.
The political landscape is changing, and we are called to be at once aware of and apart from it. How we respond as members and a profession is essential. We must never lose sight of the need to focus first on our responsibility to serve the community as a whole and not seek favor or personal gain through recognition.
(Article authored by TCMA Ethics Chair, Nick Finan, Executive Director and City Secretary of Management Services, City Texas City and Bob Hart City Manager, Kennedale. Edited by members of the TCMA Ethics Committee.)