Participating in political elections and campaigns often presents a dilemma for people who are already employed by the government. Municipalities strive to maintain political neutrality in serving their community, but individual employees may have strong political leanings as private citizens. As national campaigns for 2012 heat up across the nation and many local governments gear up for elections come November, the question of where to draw the line of political involvement can be a tricky one. This issue has created much debate over whether the notion of a conflict of interest supersedes government employees’ rights to express their political opinions.
Of course, for city managers and other ICMA members, political activity is not in the question. From its beginnings, ICMA has called upon city managers to take a stance of full neutrality when politics is concerned. Tenet seven in the ICMA Code Ethics, which was first adopted in 1924, asks members to, “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.” Separating the day-to-day management of the city from political activity and influence has always been at the core of the profession, and ICMA members continue to uphold this value today. For professional local government managers, the place for political activity is clear: stay out of it.
But what about for other city employees? Does restricting political activity prevent favoritism and build neutral professional competence, or does it restrict free speech and frustrate employees? In several municipalities the debate has been raging. This past winter in Philadelphia the city's Board of Ethics approved an updated set of rules that would lessen the regulations placed on city workers. Previously, city employees could not make any public expression of their political beliefs, including wearing campaign buttons or posting a candidate’s sign on their lawns. With these changes they are allowed to share their political opinions through blogging and letters to the editor, and they can attend rallies and fundraisers, and contribute money to committees without jeopardizing their jobs. However, such activities must be done on their own time, and can in no way utilize city resources.
On the other side of the country in the City of Merced, Calif. local leaders have been taking a stricter stance on personal politics. The entire staff has been asked not to participate in any campaigning for the upcoming elections for mayor or city council. This request anger many employees whose work in government often means a personal passion for politics in addition to public administration. This past Fourth of July in Tulsa, Okla. a councilman called on the mayor to end an order mandating that city employees cannot participate in municipal politics.
Check out the links to below to view other sample political activity guidelines for state and local employees:
Read more about Political Activity on the Knowledge Network topic page. ICMA also provides many resources on ethics, including advice and issues related to political activity, supporting a candidate, and running for elected office, including articles like the ones below:
Also see these PM articles about Supporting a Candidate for Elected Office and General Political Activity.