Ethics Corner

Tenet 4

“Recognize that the chief function of local government at all times is to serve the best interests of all of the people.”

TCMA’s Tenet 4 is best known to most managers as the tenet that relates to the length of service in a position.  The lone guideline affiliated with this tenet describes the concept that two years’ presence in a position is needed to “render a professional service to the local government.”  In a professional setting such as local government management, managers are expected to be intimately familiar with their cities; current issues, historical background, key groups, elected officials, neighboring jurisdictions, and so on.  It takes time to develop that knowledge base, and two years is the currently recognized time in which one is assumed to have learned what needed and to have made a positive, lasting impact upon a community.

Questions that typically arise include, “What if my council turns on me?” or “Does this apply to a department head that is a TCMA member?”  The guideline here gives some examples where a shorter tenure can be allowed.  For example, a vote of no confidence or a council opting to change the manager’s terms of employment is both situations where a reduced term of service is acceptable.  Although uncomfortable, a souring of a situation, changing political winds, or a long commute is not enough to cut one’s tenure short.  Members are expected to do their own “due diligence” when considering taking a position.  This includes gathering insight on the elected body, getting familiar with potential pitfalls, and even making sure that the candidate’s family will “fit in” to the new community.  Staying for a short period in just about any professional career is seen as improper, and this is especially true of local government management.

Another question relates to promotion after less than two years of service.  This is not seen as a violation of Tenet 4, so long as the promotion is within the same organization.  In terms of who this tenet applies to, note that the guideline does not differentiate between managers, assistant managers, and department heads.  All TCMA members are expected to abide by these tenets, regardless of their title or position.

Tenet 4 focuses on the manager’s term of employment, and how that impacts his/her ability to serve the community.  However, the exact wording of the tenet speaks to the role of local government is serving all members of a community equally.  It doesn’t take long to find a current newspaper or internet article describing a manager that’s under fire because of a section of town that feels left behind, or a special-interest group that claims that their interests are being ignored.  This tenet serves as a reminder that all residents of a jurisdiction, regardless of their politics, race, age, gender, social, or economic status are to be served by the local government.

Interestingly, the original ICMA tenet had some additional language before being modified in the mid-1970s.  It used to state that the manager’s chief function was to “serve the best interests of all the people on a nonpartisan basis.”  Perhaps this reflects even more of the original intent of this tenet – that effective service delivery ultimately depends on a professional manager.