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Everyday Ethics

Getting Solid Advice to Resolve Everyday Ethical Challenges Is Critical to Your Success


by Martha Perego

Here is advice on questions posed recently to ICMA’s ethics adviser.

Q: A community leader from a city in which I previously served as manager is seeking an interim appointment to that city council. She would like me to write a letter of reference to aid in her application.

This person has many of the qualities you want to see in an elected official: smart, selfless, fair, and diplomatic. Since there will be no election with all the related campaigning, can I offer my letter of support?

This is a case where the “what” is more relevant than the “how.” Regardless of how a person gets a seat—by vote of the populous or by the council—the person is still a candidate for a public office.

The guideline on elections under Tenet 7 notes that “Members share with their fellow citizens the right and responsibility to vote. However, in order not to impair their effectiveness on behalf of the local governments they serve, they shall not participate in political activities to support the candidacy of individuals running for any city, county, special district, school, state, or federal offices.

“Specifically, they shall not endorse candidates, make financial contributions, sign or circulate petitions, or participate in fund-raising activities for individuals seeking or holding elected office.”

A letter of reference for a council candidate, whether appointed or running, would be considered an endorsement. Best to decline!

Q: My new job brings a couple “firsts” with it as well. First position as a city manager, and first time I have to relocate my family. One of the elected officials is a realtor and volunteered to help me with the search.

She is representing me as the buyer and has no financial interest in any of the properties she has shown me. She has been tremendously helpful in sharing her knowledge and history of the city.

Have I inadvertently violated any tenets of the ICMA Code of Ethics by hiring a councilmember? I know perception could be skewed, but is it really a problem if she is not selling me her house and does not represent the seller?

It is not a violation of the Code to select an elected official as your realtor. Nor is it a violation to conduct other routine personal business with an elected official.

That said, it is generally recommended that you avoid doing so if possible. The rational is that it can complicate the employer-employee relationship. That can happen in one of two ways.

First, if there are any issues with the service provided by the elected official or a dispute over payment, that ill feeling can bleed over into your relationship at work. Second, as you note perception comes into play. It can create the appearance with others that perhaps you favor this individual or are closer to her than the others.

Q: The assistant county clerk walked into my office late in the day, closed the door, and asked if I had time to talk. While outwardly composed, I could sense that she was upset. In all my years as deputy county manager, it was rare to see this individual anything but cool, calm, and collected.

Before getting into the details, she asked me to promise that I would keep the conversation confidential. I gave her my word. The story then poured forth.

Seemingly out of the blue, a county commissioner was sexually harassing her. The assistant was so surprised by the comments that initially she said nothing. She thought maybe his recent divorce left him “off kilter.”

But then casual compliments about her clothing escalated to comments about parts of her body. At that point, the assistant asked the commissioner to stop.

It only got worse. He started to drop by her office unannounced. Next up were phone calls and suggestive texts asking for a date. Again, she told the commissioner to stop.

Now she wants my advice on how to get him to stop, but she is also adamant that no one should confront the commissioner. If confronted, will he make an unbearable situation even worse? Could she end up losing her job?

We have a good work environment, and harassment is out of place here. I feel like I should do something, but what should I do? Did I make a mistake in giving her my word to keep this confidential?

The short answer is “yes.” Never make a blanket promise of confidentiality in the workplace unless you are sure that it is both legal and ethical to keep it.

You are on notice now about potentially illegal and unethical conduct by a member of your organization. The fact that an elected official, who is a leader in the organization, is the alleged offender makes the situation worse.

Your promise not to disclose the details of your conversation with the staff member is trumped by your obligation to protect her and the organization. Get to the facts. Conduct an investigation using an independent reputable third party.

Use the results to guide the next steps to ensure that staff are not subject to harassment.

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