Magazine article Public Management

What Price Political Neutrality?

Magazine article Public Management

What Price Political Neutrality?

Article excerpt

No city manager should take an active part in politics. That clear, succinct statement of the profession's bedrock principle of political neutrality was expressed in the first ICMA Code of Ethics. As the profession evolved to include city and county managers, assistants, and professionals at all levels, the statement of the principle changed as well.

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Today, Tenet 7 of the Code, approved by the membership in 1998, requires all those who work in local government 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."

Staying clear of all political activity other than voting for the candidate of your choice is really a statement of respect and support for our democracy. It's an acknowledgement of the unique rights and contributions of the voters to select the political leadership to govern and, in turn, appoint the professionals to manage. For insight into how political activity can undermine the public's confidence in our work, consider these two real-world scenarios:

Scenario no. 1: The public information officer has a true passion for public service that extends beyond his work for the county. The announcement that the district's state legislator plans to retire at the expiration of her term has the PIO contemplating a run for the position.

He could be a strong contender given his extensive network of contacts in a wide-open field. Because success is not a certainty, though, his strategy is to retain his position with the county while spending his off hours quietly building a base of support among party leaders, meeting with constituent groups, and raising funds.

When the actual campaign starts, he may take a leave of absence. He doesn't think that running for elected office would have any negative impact on the county. After all, he isn't the county manager and doesn't aspire to the position.

Advice: As one who deals with the media and the public, the PIO is naive to believe that his stealth campaign will remain a secret for long. Once disclosed, his role as the voice of the organization delivering the policy positions of the elected officials and news of staff efforts is compromised.

In this era of policy and funding disputes between levels of government, will it be crystal clear to the public that he presents the views of the county in such matters and not his own? Will his political activity tarnish the reputation of staff who strive to be professional and nonpartisan? What's his relationship now with members of the governing body who may choose to support other candidates for this seat?

With each media appearance, will anyone wonder whether it is driven by county news or just a desire to raise his visibility with voters? …

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