Ethics Corner

The following scenario details a situation that begins innocently, but quickly becomes troublesome for this particular deputy city manager. As you read the scenario, think about similar instances that could occur in your city, and how you might approach this set of circumstances.

The Dilemma: In an area the city has targeted as prime for redevelopment, an existing local business (a funeral home) was provided development assistance by the city. After the business completed its redevelopment, an open house was held, and the deputy city manager was invited. While at the open house, the business asked the deputy city manager to be involved in a video. The deputy city manager assumed he was being asked to speak from the city’s perspective about redevelopment, including the businesses role in this effort.

The deputy city manager was escorted to an empty room where he was asked to tell on video about what the business means to him. The deputy city manager shared about the importance of redevelopment and that this particular business could be a catalyst in the area. He expressed appreciation for the local business owner who demolished his former building and replaced it with a new one, while also addressing localized flooding concerns. The deputy city manager espoused further about the importance of redevelopment.

As the deputy city manager closed his comments, the interviewer asked the deputy city manager to comment on his recent personal experience with the business. The deputy city manager hesitated, and stated he could not endorse a business, and the interviewer indicated comments would not be used as an endorsement. The deputy city manager then provided comments about his family’s recent experience with the funeral home.

That evening after the open house, the deputy city manager contacted the business owner to inform him about the deputy city manager’s membership with two associations that prohibit members from endorsing products or companies. The owner stated he would make sure the video was not used as an endorsement, and protect the deputy city manager’s obligations to the associations.

Several months later, the business owner sent the deputy city manager a link to the video, and stated they “avoided making the video look like an endorsement.” The business owner asked for the deputy city manager’s blessing to publicly post the video. Upon viewing the video, the deputy city manager became concerned the video could be perceived as an endorsement for the business. The deputy city manager’s comments about the city’s appreciation for the redevelopment were completely void from the video.

The Solution: The deputy city manager reached out to TCMA and ICMA leadership, shared the video link, and inquired as to whether they believed the video could be construed as violating the TCMA and ICMA Code of Ethics. TCMA leadership commented that Tenet 12 addresses the deputy city manager’s dilemma. A guideline within Tenet 12 specifically addresses “Endorsements,” and states in part, “Members should not endorse commercial products or services by agreeing to use their photograph, endorsement, or quotation in paid or other commercial advertisements, marketing materials, social media, or other documents, whether the member is compensated or not for the member’s support.”

Additionally, TCMA leadership suggested, “if you have questions or feel uncomfortable and question it, then maybe it is better to not do it.” That suggestion alone addressed the deputy city manager’s concerns. ICMA leadership weighed in, too, and concurred with the TCMA leadership’s statements. Furthermore, both TCMA and ICMA agreed that a member cannot be “too conservative” when it comes to ethical conduct.

The next day, the deputy city manager contacted the business owner to request videos or sound bites of the deputy city manager not be used in the business’ testimonials. The deputy city manager informed the business owner that the two associations had been consulted, and both perceived the video as an endorsement, which violated the Code of Ethics. The business owner also was provided the Code of Ethics and Guidelines. The business owner expressed his understanding and commitment not to use the video.

Lessons Learned: Even though the video did not state the deputy city manager’s full name or that he was employed by the city and the deputy city manager did not outright endorse the business, some residents could reasonably believe he was a city official endorsing this funeral home. Additionally, other local funeral homes might interpret the deputy city manager’s comments as an endorsement, which could have them concluding that the city favors one particular business over another.

Carefully considering consequences of a member’s actions and possible interpretations of such is paramount to the individual’s and the profession’s success. If a member is unsure about a situation, consult the experts who are quick to respond and provide thoughtful guidance and suggestions. As a fallback, a member should use their initial judgement – gut feeling – to determine if the member is on shaky ground and about to cross the ethical divide.

A member should document any conversations with the business and even do follow up emails as documentation if ever questioned about the video.  This deputy city manager was fortunate enough to have a business actually follow-up and seek permission after the recording of the conversation.  Not all businesses may be so considerate or thorough.

And lastly, by contacting TCMA leadership, heeding its advice, and having emails, if the deputy city manager is ever questioned on the situation, the deputy city manager has shown his attempt to adhere to the TCMA Code of Ethics.