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Contact Mary Vinzant at 602-258-5786 or mvinzant@azleague.org
Ethics Matter!
Tan, Rested, and Running
Advice for navigating the campaign season


The 2012 presidential campaign season is sure to be competitive and combative given the partisan climate, battleground rhetoric, and tough issues facing the country. The race is off to an early start as committed candidates and those testing the waters toured Iowa and other key battlegrounds this summer.

Public servants at all levels have a keen personal as well as professional interest in the outcomes of the elections. For professionals managing our cities and counties, the challenge is to be well informed about the candidates' positions and the potential impact on issues while also remaining politically neutral. The combined effort of being engaged and well informed can make it difficult to stay above the fray.

Political neutrality is a foundational principle of the profession. To serve the public and members of the governing body equally, we remove ourselves from the larger democratic process of selecting elected leaders, and we limit our participation to voting. In reality, that means following the guideline of the ICMA Code of Ethics on elections:

Members share with their fellow citizens the right and responsibility to vote and to voice their opinion on public issues. 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.

Seems clear and direct-unless you consider all the nuances of the campaign process.

Issue Briefing or Party Fundraiser?

The local chapter of the dominant political party in town is hosting a presentation by a nationally known and hugely successful political consultant. Marketed as a briefing on national issues, the ticketed event is attracting lots of attention. The mayor and most of city council plan to attend and are encouraging the city manager to do so as well.

From the mayor's perspective, it is important for the manager to be well informed. Since all the elected officials are from this party, no one on council will take issue with the manager's attendance. The manager, who has presented on city issues at party meetings during the off-season, is hesitant about attending this event.

A ticketed event sponsored by a political party during a campaign season is probably a fundraiser designed to support the party's candidates and mission. It is wise to double check first, but, if confirmed, the manager must decline. Even attending if someone else pays for the ticket would not be appropriate because the event is supporting a slate of candidates.

The Debate

A private college in the city has been selected as the venue for one of the Republican Party debates between the president and his challengers. City police and staff will assist with the logistics. The mayor, a Republican, has been invited to open the event. The assistant city manager is tasked with coordinating the city's logistical efforts. She obviously will be granted access to the event and perhaps even offered a seat on the dais, if desired.

The assistant city manager, cognizant of her commitment to political neutrality, is concerned that her obligation to be on-site during the event creates an ethical issue. Would her attendance be misconstrued as supporting Republican Party candidates? Should she just stay in the parking lot during the debate?

Even though this debate is sponsored by and is solely between members of the same party, ICMA members are not precluded from attending (assuming it's a true debate and not a fundraiser). Debates are certainly part of the campaign process, but they also serve the purpose of informing voters.

But it's nuanced. Although simply attending a debate doesn't signal support for either the party or a candidate, sitting on the dais wearing a "vote for Joe" T-shirt does.

Again, the commitment to political neutrality is not intended to deprive professionals from gathering information and insight.

To Caucus or Not

The caucus process used in a number of states essentially requires individuals to publicly demonstrate their support for a candidate in order to register a vote in the primary. This manner of voting would appear at first consideration to violate the principle of political neutrality outlined in the ICMA Code of Ethics.

But the principle was never intended to either limit a member's right to vote or prevent it. Recall the opening principle of the guideline: "Members share with their fellow citizens the right and responsibility to vote and to voice their opinion on public issues."

ICMA members can participate in the caucus process for the purpose of registering a vote. Caucuses, probably more than any other campaign activity, raise concerns about the subtle distinction between voting and campaigning. To be clear, it is okay to voice your vote or stand for the candidate of your choice. It is crossing the line, though, to actively rally or seek support for the candidate of your choice.

If you are concerned that attending a debate or participating in a caucus would undermine your effectiveness or create the appearance that you are not politically neutral, then it is best not to participate. It was Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who reminded us that ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.

Article reprinted with permission from: http://webapps.icma.org/pm/9309/public/ethics.cfm?author=&title=Ethics%20Matter!&subtitle=
Arizona City/County Management Association
1820 W. Washington Street, Phoenix, AZ 85007   •   Phone: (602) 258-5786   •   Fax: (602) 253-3874   •   www.azmanagement.org