Ethics: Alive and Well
Elizabeth Kellar, Washington, D.C., and Jan Perkins, Laguna Beach, California.

Reprinted with permission from the January/February 2007 issue of PM magazine published by ICMA, the premier local government leadership and management organization, Washington, D.C.

Ethics has been at the core of the city and county management profession since ICMA was founded in 1914. And ethics can never be taken for granted.

As Clinton Gridley, city administrator, Woodbury, Minnesota, puts it: "Our organization's ethical underpinnings need constant tending, just like a garden. The organization may have a good reputation, but if there are momentary lapses, all of the good work and reputation we have built can be blown away."

Woodbury enjoys a strong reputation, consistently ranking in the top three local overnments in a biennial citizen survey of some 50 communities in Minnesota. And yet, even Woodbury is not immune to an occasional ethical lapse. Gridley recounted that not long ago the city found that some city employees had misused the Internet to view pornographic sites from their city computers.

Although the employees' actions were not illegal, they were contrary to the organization's values. Gridley and the department directors were stunned to find anyone in the organization would have shown such poor judgment. The city put more restrictive Internet firewalls in place to make sure there would be no recurrence. The city's action caused inconvenience to some staff, but it was a small price to pay to restore confidence.

But Gridley wanted to do more than apply a corrective action to a particular problem. He turned to ICMA for local government ethics training to reinforce Woodbury's values. Gridley explains it this way: "As Stephen Covey would say, it's important to sharpen the saw. Ethical judgment is like the blade of the saw. It can get dull without training. ICMA's case examples stimulate active discussion and make people think."

Woodbury has a strong culture that builds on a "We HELP" values statement that was adopted some years ago:

Help.
Effective.
Look ahead.
Professional.

Employees are recognized when they exhibit what Woodbury calls "HELPish" values, sometimes with a written thank you, an intranet "pat on the back," or an employee award. After their ICMA ethics training, Gridley has encouraged top management to engage in ethical conversations. They now are sharing stories about particular ethical problems they have faced and are learning from each other. "What happens in one department can easily be repeated in another part of the organization," Gridley says.

Inspired by Patrick Lencioni's book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, Gridley is challenging Woodbury's leadership to develop more skill and comfort in being honest and open with each other. In a "nice" culture like Woodbury has, Gridley recognizes it is not easy to learn how to criticize politely and appropriately. "But this is important to our goal of building and keeping the public's trust," he adds.

Terry Stewart, city manager, Cape Coral, Florida, and John Maltbie, county manager, San Mateo County, California, agree that it takes conscious effort and sound management practices to build an ethical culture. San Mateo County leaders have long worked to ensure there is a clear vision, mission, and expectations for people in the organization. Leaders must act consistently with the values they want to see in others.

Maltbie speaks at the new-employee orientation each month to share his vision of public service. He emphasizes that, as a county employee, each person must be accountable to the public, act in a transparent and open way, respect the people who are being served, and collaborate with others in the county and outside the organization to accomplish public service goals.

Cape Coral reinforces ethics in its personnel system. Ethical behavior is integrated into the organization's management style, which is open, encourages employees to speak their minds, and rewards ethical conduct. Stewart recalls the Cape Coral code enforcement officer who investigated a complaint about housing conditions.

Cape Coral had offered housing to a number of evacuees from Hurricanes Charlie and Katrina. When the code enforcement officer found appalling conditions in one home where a young family of evacuees lived, he took action that exceeded his responsibility of writing up code violations. He found a better city-owned home for the family and secured plugs for the electrical outlets so that the young children would be safe. Cape Coral made that code enforcement officer "employee of the year" for going beyond the call of duty and demonstrating ethical leadership.

A measure of an individual's ethical courage or an organization's ethical culture is how that person deals with problems when something goes wrong. When Jim Keene, now executive director of the California State Association of Counties, was city manager in Tucson, Arizona, he had to deal with a sticky accountability issue involving an elected official's staff.

Each member of the Tucson city council has six staff members who support them. One city councilmember had asked his staff to collect water bill payments. These employees had not been screened to do that kind of work, and no controls were in place to ensure that payments were processed appropriately. Keene told the councilmember that this practice could not continue, and he proposed that the city set up a satellite office to provide this service if there was a customer service issue that needed to be addressed.

The councilmember did not agree and took his case to the media, arguing that residents would be upset with any change. Keene continued to press for change. "This is a bad business practice and the city will have problems if we don't change," he said.

One month later, the city councilmember went to the city attorney to disclose that "a lot of money was missing" and asked the attorney what to do. The city attorney immediately brought Keene into the communication loop, and Keene launched a police investigation.

Because the recordkeeping was poor, the police said that it would be difficult to prosecute anyone for wrongdoing. The money collected for bills had been commingled with petty cash that staff used for a variety of needs, and cursory notes about various amounts of money had been left in the till. Keene handled the problem discreetly by sending a memo directly to the councilmember to require that the councilmember stop collecting payments for water bills in his office.

It was an election year, and Keene did not copy the entire city council on the memo. The councilmember himself, however, went public with the problem and accused one of his staff of misusing the funds. A reporter filed a freedom of information request and got a copy of Keene's memo. This reporter wrote a story about the problem three days before city council elections. The councilmember accused Keene of leaking the memo to the media. The city settled with the individual who had been accused by the councilmember. The councilmember narrowly won his bid for reelection.

One lesson that Keene draws from this experience and other ethical challenges he has faced is that a crisis can be a time to press for positive changes. "When things seem the darkest and the loneliest, the best strategy is to dive directly into it," he says. "It can be an opportunity for a shift in thinking and to recognize that many in the public are with you."

In Cape Coral, Stewart recalls the time when one of his subordinates demonstrated courage. Two years ago, the finance director became concerned that Stewart, the city manager, might have been trying to circumvent the city's system after he saw a memo that Stewart had written requesting that an individual be paid for his work. He came directly to Stewart to ask about it. Stewart thanked the finance director for raising the concern with him, saying, "I am glad you are paying attention to these issues. It was not my intent to go around the system. I just wanted to be sure we did all we could."

Stewart says that many organizations have problems because employees may fear speaking up. ICMA's ethics training reinforces the importance of ethical leadership and responsibility. Stewart adds that employees also need to understand that no "monkey visits" are allowed: "Employees cannot bring me a monkey and expect me to carry it on my back. If someone brings a problem to my attention, I am going to act. That is my responsibility, especially if it deals with a serious matter like sexual harassment."

County Manager John Maltbie has a similar perspective. He believes ethics is about two issues: discernment and discipline. Discernment is the ability to determine right and wrong. Discipline is the ability to act on the knowledge of what the right thing is to do, even when it is difficult or painful. The county counsel's office regularly helps the management team deal with difficult ethical issues so that staff know they have a place to go for advice that goes beyond the legal issues.

"We're engaged in the business of public service," says Maltbie, "which means our decisions and actions must promote the integrity and good intentions of government." He sees the profession of city and county management as one of the most ethical in the world. Maltbie says local government managers are held to a higher standard, and he believes they should be. He draws his leadership philosophy from his belief in the value of public service and the imperative to act consistently for the benefit of the public.

Although an individual's personal leadership is important in supporting an ethical culture, it is equally important to embed ethical values and expectations in the organization's systems, behaviors, and actions. Local government leaders are stewards of the public trust. Building and supporting an ethical culture is a legacy that may not be as visible as a beautiful downtown, but it pays dividends to the community for years to come.

Elizabeth Kellar is deputy director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (ekellar@icma.org), and Jan Perkins is an ICMA senior adviser and local government consultant, Management Partners, Laguna Beach, California (jperkins@managementpartners.com).
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