Serving Everyone's Best Interests All the Time

ARTICLE | Dec 13, 2016

An Aspirational Goal or a Reality Check?

ICMA's review of the Code of Ethics continues with Tenet 4. If you have to glance at the Code hanging on your wall to refresh your recollection of what it says, you are not alone.

The tenet falls into the category of important but maybe not memorable: "Recognize that the chief function of local government at all times is to serve the best interests of all of the people."

Perhaps Tenet 4 isn't remarkable because it is a given that professionals show up for work every day with this goal in mind and that their work to this end is intentional. Trying not to stray from that goal is rarely the reason for a member to reach out to ICMA for advice, and it's just as rare that a complainant cites it as the principle violated when a member is alleged to have done something unethical.

The same cannot be said about Tenet 4's solitary guideline! It is that widely known yet difficult, notorious, often ambiguous guideline on length of service. While just a guideline, it's often referenced in the profession as the "rule" that once you take a position you must stay two years. Something akin to indentured servitude.

It generates many questions from members at every career stage trying to figure out "should I stay or should I go?". Ten percent of ethics cases reviewed by the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct involve short tenures.

As the dialogue about the relevancy of these principles moves forward, many will focus on the guideline. That's understandable given the immediate impact the guideline has on a person trying to decide her or his next professional move.

If for no other reason, the turmoil of the last election cycle should make us focus on the actual tenet. Given the apparent divide in this country on a huge range of consequential issues, the purpose and intent of the tenet needs thoughtful consideration.

Is the profession committed to the principle that the purpose of local government, at all times, is to serve the best interests of all of the people? If so, how do you do that? And perhaps more significantly, how are you sure that you are doing so?

A Look Back

The language of Tenet 4 was first added to the Code of Ethics in 1952, when it resided in the No. 7 spot:


"The city manager keeps the community informed on municipal affairs. He emphasizes friendly and courteous service to the public. He recognizes that the chief function of the local government at all times is to serve the best interests of all the people on a non-partisan basis."


In 1972, the language was simplified and moved to its current position at No. 4 in the Code:


"Recognize that the chief function of local government at all times is to serve the best interests of all of the people."


The importance of keeping the community informed was not deleted. Emphasis on a duty to communicate with the public along with providing effective and courteous service are reflected in Tenet 9. The Tenet 4 guideline was added in 1972 and has remained untouched since.

Length of Service Guideline

A minimum of two years generally is considered necessary to render a professional service to the local government. A short tenure should be the exception rather than a recurring experience. Under special circumstances, however, it may be in the best interests of the local government and the member to separate in a shorter time.

Examples of such circumstances would include refusal of the appointing authority to honor commitments concerning conditions of employment, a vote of no confidence in the member, or severe personal problems. It is the applicant's responsibility to ascertain conditions of employment; inadequately determining terms of employment prior to arrival does not justify premature termination.

The guideline applies to all ICMA members working for a local government. At the time it was drafted, the actual audience was the city, town, or county manager. A two-year commitment would have taken the manager through at least one entire budget cycle, which was probably considered the very least a person should contribute.

ICMA's membership today is far broader and more inclusive. Now we field questions from members at every career stage who struggle to determine whether their specific situation creates an exception to the guideline. Which begs the question of whether a 45-year-old standard created for a narrower target audience is relevant today.

Things to Consider

  • Does the tenet truly describe the purpose of local government? Is it still relevant to the profession?
  • Should the tenet provide more guidance on how professionals make local government serve the interests of all? Tenet 10, for example, which focuses on resisting encroachment on your professional responsibilities, states that problems should be handled "without discrimination on the basis of principle and justice." Should that be moved to Tenet 4 to provide more direction?
  • If length of service matters, should it be aligned with the duties and responsibilities of the position? And if so, what is a professional length of service?
  • What are we missing?


You will have an opportunity to weigh in this year on the critical question of the day: What is our purpose? Please don't be shy! Send me an e-mail message.



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