Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Ethical Challenges in the City Manager/City Councilmember Relationship

These scenarios were developed by Frank Benest, senior advisor to the International City/County Management Association, and delivered to a meeting of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Public Sector Roundtable April 20, 2012. Discussion sections after each case reflect remarks by members of the roundtable, which includes city managers, councilmembers, and other public officials.

Scenario 1

A developer is proposing a major commercial development with of lots of name recognition. The mayor suggests that the council appoint her and another councilmember to a committee in order to negotiate a package of community benefits as part of the entitlement process. The city manager and city attorney are upset that staff have not been designated as the negotiators so the mayor suggests to the council that the manager, attorney and community development director attend the meetings with the developer, but the mayor and the other councilmember will take the lead.

In the negotiations, both councilmembers push similar community benefits but the mayor and councilmember clearly have a few different priorities. The negotiations seem to drag on, but finally the developer puts together a package of benefits generally supported by the two councilmembers. At the direction of the council negotiating committee, the city manager then schedules the project and the community benefits package for an upcoming council agenda.

Just prior to the public hearing in front of the council, the mayor goes privately to the developer and tells him that the mayor won't the support the project unless the developer adds to the package a pedestrian and bike trail segment that completes the community's neighborhood trails program. The developer agrees to fund the trails segment, and the mayor indicates that she will publicly support the project at the hearing.

What are the ethical dilemmas?

Discussion: Process is the first problem in this scenario. Usually, the professional staff negotiate entitlements and benefits with direction from the council. Staff have the expertise and training in planning, zoning, and municipal law, while councilmembers' expertise is in the political and policy arenas. Bypassing this process undercuts the relationship between council and staff, and hurts morale.

Also, the mayor in this case violated the trust of the other parties to the negotiation by going behind the backs of colleagues to renegotiate the deal. This could lay the mayor open to charges of extortion. It will certainly turn off the developer who may never again trust the city when considering a new project. Finally, the mayor should not commit to vote any particular way before a public hearing on the matter. Such action could invalidate the vote.

Scenario 2

A councilmember is actively supported by open space advocates in the region. The councilmember approaches a baylands protection, non-profit advocacy group and proposes a baylands public education program for children that could be funded by the city government and operated by the agency. After meeting with the president and executive director of the non-profit, the councilmember approaches the city's sustainability coordinator and encourages the staff person to develop a proposal to fund the project.

The sustainability coordinator refers the councilmember to the city manager. The councilmember then meets with the city manager and strongly recommends that she schedule the proposal for council consideration. Given the ongoing fiscal challenges of the city, the manager does not feel that the proposal is a priority and suggests that the councilmember approach the mayor to see if the mayor will support the agenda item. The councilmember is upset and feels that the manager is a road-block.

What are the ethical dilemmas?

Discussion: For a councilmember to go directly to a member of the city staff is actually illegal in many jurisdictions. Called councilmanic interference, such behavior creates several ethical problems. First, the council develops a set of priority projects and budgets for them. Going outside of these priorities to write a proposal commits the city to an action that council has not agreed to. The city manager should explain that any two councilmembers can put an issue on the council agenda, which would be the proper way to initiate this new project.

Second, councilmanic interference places the staff person in a difficult position. The sustainability coordinator would love to get a new education program for her area and so will be tempted to comply with the councilmember's request. Also city staff may drop whatever they're doing, even if it's an already established priority, to respond to requests from council, even though they are supposed to take direction only from the city manager.

Scenario 3

The city manager has an excellent relationship with one of the councilmembers and gets a lot of political support from him regarding her recommendations. The councilmember makes time to meet every week with the manager and gets updated on all important city matters, including upcoming council agenda items. The manager provides more information to this particular councilmember than the other councilmembers. Based on their strong relationship, the councilmember discusses with the city manager strategy to move initiatives forward and to create majority support on the council for specific actions.

What are the ethical dilemmas?

Discussion: This cozy relationship can easily be perceived as favoritism and may well undermine the manager's relationship with the other councilmembers. Whatever a manager's personal views, he or she is supposed to take direction from the council as a whole, not just those with whom the manager is friendly. It's okay to for the manager to talk about issues and concerns outside of council meetings, but regular chats to strategize with a single councilmember about important city matters amounts to influencing votes outside a public venue.

This scenario could also backfire if either the manager takes a new job, leaving the councilmember adrift, or if the elected official leaves office, and the manager no longer has an ally.


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