Why is it that in our efforts to inspire everyone to do the right thing, we rely on examples of people who did the wrong thing? This hardly seems like the approach designed to produce the best outcome.
Think about all the learning opportunities we face in life. What inspired you to learn to swim? Was it stories of people drowning or the fact that your older sibling succeeded?
So why do we rely so heavily on the bad stories? Is it the scarcity of ethical people in the profession? Is the profession now so ethical that doing the right thing is the uninteresting norm? Or is it just a reluctance to tell our story?
The lack of positive stories about local government professionals reflects the persona of the profession and the challenge of blowing the whistle. We choose to stay out of the limelight. Often the story of what we did right doesn’t get shared out of loyalty to the organization we served. Talking about what you did right requires exposing details about those who didn’t.
Credible third-party reviews might accelerate sharing positive stories.
Cal-ICMA Ethical Hero Award
The Cal-ICMA Ethical Hero award exists to recognize ICMA members in California who serve the profession with dignity, honor, and integrity.
This year’s recipient is Magda Gonzalez. Magda joined the city of East Palo Alto as city manager in 2012. In nominating Magda, a colleague said that she “provided the mayor and city council with her best professional advice.
“Her advice and leadership for the organization was thwarted by certain councilmembers, and they questioned the role of a city manager. Rather than being concerned about her own professional future with the organization, she moved forward with evaluating the effectiveness of programs and looking for efficiencies.
“Her continued focus on finding the best course of action for the city and bringing that information to the council’s attention was often met by the council’s lack of support without stating legitimate reasons. She also was publicly criticized for performing what professional city managers view as their role in a council-manager form of government. The council decided not to renew her contract.”
Magda is currently city manager for Half Moon Bay, California. To read about her and past winners, visit the Cal-ICMA website at http://icma.org/en/ca/home.
Another Ethical Hero
Greg Smith served as manager for Moon Township, Pennsylvania, for 24 years when he encountered the biggest ethical challenge of his career. Dr. Craig Wheeland, political science professor at Villanova University, explored his saga in an article published in the American Society of Public Administration’s journal Public Integrity (Summer 2013 edition; www.aspanet.org).
As chronicled, an election brought a new majority to the board of supervisors who “broke with the tradition of nonpartisanship, respect for professional management, and ethical practices long established in Moon’s political culture.”
From Day One, the conduct of the new majority raised red flags. They excluded staff and minority board members from their discussions. At the reorganization meeting, they appointed a new township solicitor and engineer. While the move was their prerogative, it lacked a competitive process and staff input. The solicitor was a neighbor of a new councilmember; the engineering firm was an unknown entity.
Soon thereafter, the solicitor and the engineering firm billed the township for work that was not authorized by the board and was a surprise to staff. When presented with the facts and the bill, the board approved payment.
The engineering firm established a trend of submitting unreasonable invoices and also failed to provide the substantiating work product. Yet, it had the support of the board majority.
As detailed in the article, each month presented a new ethical concern. Greg and his assistants attempted to address and correct these issues internally. Framing the issues around acceptable practices, they were determined to convince the majority of the board to change their practices. When that approach failed, they documented the questionable items in detailed memos. Correspondence was broadly shared internally. All to no avail.
Ultimately, Greg and his assistants arrived at that ethical crossroad. Do you continue to challenge the conduct of the board even when the “bright light of illegality is lacking (although suspected)”? Or do you leave?
Greg shared with colleagues that his obligation to the community, organization, and his personal and professional standards required him to try to resolve the ethical dilemmas created by the board. He said that “What we know scares us, but what we did not know scares us even more.”
Greg and his two assistants ultimately chose to resign. Greg was reserved in his public statement noting that “he and the board had very different approaches as to how local government should operate.” He was more direct in individually addressed letters to the board. One board member made the letter public. The next month the board selected a new engineering firm.
In the end, Dr. Wheeland noted “resigning appeared to be the best remaining professional practice to call the public’s attention to the board’s questionable actions.” Greg and the two assistant managers continued their careers in local government. Greg passed away earlier this year.
We celebrate these colleagues for doing what was right to uphold the public’s trust. Now what steps do we need to take to tell more positive stories?