Myths About the ICMA Code of Ethics

The ICMA Code of Ethics, in existence for more than 90 years, is not surprisingly the subject of many myths. It's time to set the record straight.

ARTICLE | Dec 16, 2014

Exist long enough and no doubt myths will develop. Who knows how they get started or why they catch on, but over time, they get repeated often enough and with such authority that they take on a life of their own. Myths spread through the community until they become an accepted part of the legend or practice.Not sinister, just not grounded by facts.

The ICMA Code of Ethics, in existence for more than 90 years, is not surprisingly the subject of many myths. It’s time to set the record straight. Here are five common myths that need to be debunked.


Myth #1: The two-year tenure rule applies only to the manager. The two-year tenure rule is outlined in the guideline on length of service under Tenet 4 of the Code. It notes that “generally a minimum of two years is considered necessary in order to render a professional service to the local government.”

That guideline actually applies to all professionals working in any capacity in a local government. And why wouldn’t it? After all, every person regardless of their expertise or experience faces a learning curve when they join a new organization. Getting a thorough understanding of the organization’s culture, priorities, and customer needs takes time. So does building the relationships that are crucial to success.

If you want to advance a project, make a difference in the organization, and demonstrate your talent, you need to be willing to commit to the effort. And appreciate the fact that the organization has made an investment in selecting you.

Invest in the upfront research necessary to make sure the new position is the right place for you. Talk with current or former employees about the workplace culture and carefully review the finances. If you are relocating, spend time out in the community to make sure it’s a good fit personally.

What to do when things are heading in the wrong direction? Remember that short tenures should be the exception rather than a recurring experience. Under special circumstances, it may be in the best interest of both parties to separate in less than two years.

Examples include refusal of the organization to honor commitments, significant reduction in responsibilities, a vote of no confidence in the member, or severe personal problems. Before you head down that road, carefully consider all the alternatives and seek advice from ICMA or a trusted colleague.

Myths #2 and #3: There are two prevalent, competing myths about political activity in retirement. First is that there is a waiting period before a retired manager can run for a spot on the city council or county commission where they worked. Second is that retired members can never run for elected office.

The commitment to political neutrality outlined in Tenet 7 of the Code of Ethics applies only to members who are working for a local government. Tenet 7 requires members to refrain from all political activities that undermine public confidence in professional administrators and to refrain from participating in the election of members of the employing legislative body.

Members who are retired from the profession are required to follow Tenets 1 and 3 of the Code. Tenet 1 requires that retired members be dedicated to democratic local government and to professional management.

Tenet 3 requires that they act with integrity in all personal and professional matters so that they merit the public’s respect and confidence. As long as retired members commit to these two principles and respect the role of the incumbent manager, they are free to run for elected office.

Myth #4: You have to tell your boss (i.e., mayor, council, manager, assistant manager) when you apply for a new job. You have no ethical obligation to inform your employer when you’ve decided to look for the next professional challenge. That assumes, of course, that you plan to meet your stated commitments including tenure and notice.

When you inform your boss is primarily a matter of preserving a good professional relationship. The outcome will be far better if you, not the media, deliver the news that you will be moving on.

Myth #5: ICMA members aren’t allowed to own any property in the community where they work other than their personal residence. This issue is addressed in the guideline on investments under Tenet 12, which cautions members not to invest or hold any investment, directly or otherwise, that creates a conflict with their official duties.

With regard to real estate, the guideline notes that confidential information should not be used to further a member’s personal interests. You should avoid purchases or sales that might be viewed as speculation for quick profit. In other words, avoid investments that create a conflict of interest in fact or appearance.

And before acquiring property beyond your personal residence, think carefully about the intersection between your personal investments and your official duties, especially if they are regulatory in nature.

Start the New Year by taking a moment to review the ICMA Code of Ethics and guidelines. It’s best to be guided by solid not mythical advice.


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