Ethics Corner

The Case of Caution in Assisting Local Cities

Scenario 1:   The newly appointed city manager of the City of Oakleaf receives a phone call from a citizen from the neighboring City of Acorn asking to meet and discuss strategies for attracting high quality development in Acorn.  Over the years, Oakleaf has built a reputation for sound development management. The new city manager of Oakleaf was not really responsible for the previous accomplishments, but wants to assist and agrees to the meeting.  The city manager from Acorn recently retired and an interim city manager is currently serving in Acorn.

The meeting started off well, but it changed.  It was apparent that the City of Acorn citizen’s concerns centered on several things:  1) dissatisfaction with previous City leaders; 2) what to do with a planned development in their ETJ; and 3) what kind of city manager the City of Acorn should hire.  The city manager of Oakleaf felt uncomfortable, but the citizen left satisfied with the information. Following the meeting, the city manager of Oakleaf contacted the interim city manager Acorn to report the meeting.

What Could Go Wrong?

  • The citizen might champion a certain program that would not have been feasible based upon several factors (e.g. general law vs. home rule; tax rates; or development agreements; available funds; priorities of the city council; etc.).
  • The citizen could potentially misrepresent the City of Oakleaf’s programs for political purposes and suggest the City of Acorn’s council adopt a similar program to that of Oakleaf.
  • The citizen may use misguided information to pressure the city council of Acorn on the selection process of the next city manager.
  • The citizen may have been setting the stage for hiring away the new city manager of Oakleaf to the City of Acorn (which could also be an ethical conflict depending on how long the new city manager had served).
  • The citizen may have been tied to a city council member or minority of city council who did not agree with the city council as a whole or with the interim city manager of Acorn who may be interested in the position full time.
  • The interim city manager of Acorn could be totally blindsided and looked foolish if not prepared or able to make information readily available when the citizen of Acorn released the information to the newspaper, through blogs or social media, at a council meeting, or just through the grapevine.
  • And the city manager of Oakleaf will not be available to corroborate or correct any information provided by the citizen, but the fact that the citizen and city manager of Oakleaf did meet will be known.

Scenario 2:  The newly appointed city manager of the City of Maple gets a phone call from a councilmember of the neighboring City of Syrup inquiring about Maple’s street restoration program.  The City of Syrup’s streets are the subject of a heated community debate and so the councilmember is requesting a tour of Maple’s streets, as well as an overview of its street maintenance program.  The new city manager does not know what they are looking for, but wants to assist and agrees to provide a tour.

The city manager and public works director of Maple meet with two councilmembers from the City of Syrup.  After a short introduction by the city manager, the city manager leaves and the tour is turned over to the public works director, who showcases the City’s streets and maintenance program.  The public works director reports to the city manager that, throughout the meeting, the councilmembers were very critical of Syrup’s street program.  The city manager of Maple immediately calls the city manager of Syrup to discuss and provide a heads up regarding these perceived issues.

What Could Go Wrong?

– The two councilmembers may misrepresent Maple’s street maintenance program for political purposes.

– The councilmembers may call for Syrup’s public works director to be fired and suggest their City hire Maple’s public works director.

– Criticism and political pressure may be applied to the city manager of Syrup.

– Friction may occur between the two city managers and/or communities and their council members, etc.

– Information on how the programs are funded and to what level may not be revealed or explained during the tour or to the rest of the city council of Syrup.

– The city manager of Syrup could be totally blindsided and looked foolish if not prepared or able to make information readily available when the citizen of Acorn released the information to the newspaper, through blogs or social media, at a council meeting or just through the grapevine.

– And the city manager of Maple will not be available to corroborate or correct any information provided by the citizen, but the fact that the citizen and city manager of Oakleaf did meet will be known.

Lessons Learned:  What does Tenet 2 tell us about these hypothetical scenarios?

TCMA Tenet 2 requires us to “Affirm the dignity and worth of the services rendered by government and maintain a constructive, creative, and practical attitude toward urban affairs and a deep sense of social responsibility as a trusted public servant.”  These guidelines further state that “when members advise and respond to inquiries from elected or appointed officials of other governments, they should inform the administrators of those communities.”

In practical terms, the city managers of Oakleaf or Maple should have not committed to the meeting or tour without first calling the city managers of Acorn or Syrup.  In general, it is not advisable for either city manager to agree to meet at all without the requesting city manager of Acorn or Syrup’s consent and presence.  In most cases, the motivation and circumstances for the request are not immediately apparent.  Therefore, it would not be prudent for a meeting/tour regardless how innocent or simple it may seem.

If there was truly a benefit for a meeting or tour as shown in the two scenarios above, then the city managers of Acorn and Syrup or their representatives should be invited to those meetings/tours.  This serves two purposes:  First, the conversation is less likely to deteriorate due to political frustrations.  Second, if good ideas are presented, then the staff of each visiting city would be able to participate in discussions and better prepare themselves and their respective city councils in considering the various advantages and disadvantages of the programs.

While these lessons may seem intuitive, in a moment when a TCMA member is trying to be helpful, the full impact of actions may not appear so obvious at first.  When in doubt, a TCMA member is encouraged to talk to fellow TCMA members.  Finally, TCMA members should encourage non-members to join TCMA to better the profession through relationships, training, education, and sharing of knowledge.