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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Relationships Between Elected Officials and Staff

Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman

These materials were prepared for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics program in Government Ethics by former Senior Fellow Judy Nadler and former Communications Director Miriam Schulman.

What is the relationship between elected officials and staff?
What do these relationships have to do with ethics?
What ethical dilemmas arise between elected officials and staff?
Resources on relationships between elected officials and staff

What is the relationship between elected officials and staff?

City councilmembers, county supervisors, and other elected officials represent the citizens. Staff-such as traffic engineers, waste management specialists, budget directors, IT professionals and others-are the experts who make government run. Elected officials are responsible for setting the priorities for the municipality or other district; staff have the know-how to make those priorities into realities.

The fact that the professional staff, unlike many elected officials, are not subject to term limits means that they have an institutional history, which is very beneficial in developing the concrete plans to put policy decisions into practice. They also often have advanced degrees in management, engineering, finance, and other technical areas, a knowledge base they can bring to bear in devising solutions to local problems.

In many municipalities, city councilmembers are elected by wards or districts. Once invested in office, they are supposed to serve the entire city, but often they feel a special responsibility to the constituents who elected them. By contrast, staff are mandated to serve the needs of the municipality as a whole.

In a council-manager form of government, staff report to the city manager. In a strong mayor system, staff answers to the mayor. In either case, when council makes policy decisions, it is the role of the manager or mayor to see that they are carried out by the staff. City council has no role in staff personnel issues; they hire and fire only the city attorney and city manager. As the Institute for Local Self Government explains in Everyday Ethics for Local Officials, "The manager [holds] staff accountable on the council's behalf for implementing the council's policies and directives. The entire council, in turn, holds the manager accountable for staff's overall performance."

What do these relationships have to do with ethics?

Many of the ethical issues that come up between elected officials and staff are best seen through the lens of virtue ethics, especially the virtue of respect. Elected officials need to show respect for the expertise of staff and avoid undercutting their efforts by ignoring the evidence-based solutions they propose. Conversely, staff need to respect the political give and take inherent in democratic government and the negotiation that is bound to be part of any council decision.

These relationships also raise ethical issues when elected officials try to circumvent established procedures and priorities to gain an advantage for their friends, family, or constituents. Going over the head of the city manager to pressure a staff member for special consideration is actually illegal. As an example, here is a section from the code of the city of Sunnyvale, California, about what is called "councilmanic interference":

Neither the City Council nor any member shall give orders to any subordinates of the City Manager, either publicly or privately.

Typically, elected officials may make inquiries or exchange information, but they cannot issue directives.

What ethical dilemmas arise between elected officials and staff?

Many newly elected officials have an imperfect understanding of the division of labor between council and staff; they may act as though staff work for them as individuals and should be responsive to their individual priorities and the needs of their specific constituents. If a councilmember ran on a platform of clean streets, for example, he or she may believe that the proper course of action once elected is to meet directly with the sanitation director and encourage prompt action. But the councilmember must work through the democratic process with other councilmembers to make clean streets a priority across the city. That priority would then be conveyed to the city manager, to whom the sanitation director reports.

Another set of ethical dilemmas arises when council sets priorities but then ignores them. In a public meeting the council may agree on the top five goals for the year-like renovate central park, draw up plans for a teen center, etc.-but during course of the year, individual councilmembers come up with separate projects and introduce them without regard to what the majority of the council decided. This puts a lot of pressure on city staff, when they have been given their marching orders on the top priorities, and they are now being diverted from accomplishing them.

Sometimes elected officials have their own staffs, and may ask their own transportation or sanitation expert to study a problem and make proposals. When the elected officials either on their own or though council or mayoral staff conduct their own research, they are not only duplicating the work of the technical staff and therefore wasting time and money, but they are also undercutting the authority and marginalizing the recommendations of the professional staff, who work for the entire city and not for any individual elected official.

It is also demoralizing to staff when they come up with a clear, technical report with an evidence-based proposal, which is then thrown out the window because there are 100 people in the audience or 100 names on a petition asking for something else. Traffic calming is a common area of contention, where, for example residents of a senior citizens housing complex may be agitating for a stoplight so that they can cross the street safely. But city staff may have evidence that a stoplight at that intersection will create more problems than it solves.

John Nalbandian, who has studied public administration as a professor at University of Kansas and also served as a city commissioner, points out, however, that such problems do not necessarily have a right answer. "From the engineer's perspective," he writes, " I suspect that there is a right answer to the problem, and the engineer might ask, 'Will the council have the political courage to accept it?' But, as an elected official, I do not see the right answer. I see a very complicated set of forces and a problem infused with choices about values symbolized by a decision about a traffic light."

Resources on Relationships Between Elected Officials and Staff

July 2006

Oct 23, 2015
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