In local government, its of the utmost to act with integrity and honesty. However, our governmental systems and the people who participate in them are fallible and mistakes are inevitable. Sometimes these mistakes are innocent but sometimes there are nefarious intentions behind lapses in moral and ethical judgment. When these scandals come to light, it’s important that officials act decisively, transparently and authoritatively – taking appropriate action to right the ship. When handled properly, a besmirched administration can gain back the trust it lost through a scandal, but if handled poorly, trust in the community can be fundamentally broken, undermining the authority of the entire government.

It’s a difficult line to walk, but one of the easiest ways to manage scandal is to prevent incidents from happening in the first place. That’s why it’s critically important that government agencies have a strong moral compass and a well-defined code of ethics.

Acting Ethically

First adopted in 1924, the International City/County Management Association’s (ICMA) code of ethics sought to put an end to the corruption that was rampant at the turn of the 20th century when machine politics and pay-to-play arrangements were the norm.

“The code of ethics describes what our responsibilities are to the community we serve, what our responsibilities are to the elected officials we serve, and what our responsibilities are to each other as a profession,” says Martha Perego, ICMA’s director of ethics. 

She goes on to explain that at the time, one of the key values of the code of ethics was the concept of political neutrality. This idea is just as important today as it was back then. “The dysfunction that happened in local government before the reform movement was that it was pay-to-play. You got your job based on who you were connected with and you weren’t necessarily qualified,” Perego says. ICMA’s code of ethics states those who work or serve in government won’t work to get others elected. 

Today this type of corruption is, thankfully, less widespread in government, Perego says. “For the most part if you think about local government now, the vast majority of them have regular audits, they are hiring professional people at all stages of the operation, a lot of these people are required to pass certifications and be credentialed in their own field,” Perego says. As the occupation has become more professional, the big cases of theft and embezzlement have become fewer. 

In the modern age, however, ethical quandaries have more to do with personal and professional conflicts of interest. “A lot of these are appearance issues,” Perego says. “It’s not that someone is corrupt, it’s not that someone is trying to gain personally. They may be doing something that they aren’t aware of or they have a relationship or are entering into a relationship that will somehow create a conflict of interest for them, and they don’t manage it properly.” Generally speaking, there is a potential for a conflict of interest any time an individual’s personal life intersects with their professional life.  

More often than not, Perego says, ethical dilemmas are created when these conflicts of interest aren’t recognized. When the facts of the supposed conflict are released, it creates the appearance of wrongdoing, even if no wrongdoing ever took place. Compounding the issue is the idea that ethics and legality are two different things. Just because something is legal, Perego explains, doesn’t mean it’s ethical. This is why it’s crucial for ethical issues to be taken seriously, and for public servants and employees to understand them intimately. 

Ethical action starts with the individual, Perego says. It’s important to personally understand where obligations lie, and in the public sector, those obligations are to the community being served. Second, it’s important to understand organizational values. It’s incumbent upon the government as a whole and each agency to define what those values are and communicate what they look like, Perego says. Third, these values should be reinforced through training. This training should demonstrate the importance of the organization’s ethical standards and how they are demonstrated in the day to day. “You do training,” she says. “You talk about your code, you talk about your values on a regular basis. Your code of ethics isn’t just something that’s hanging on your wall, it’s something you’re talking about all the time.” 

One way to start this conversation is by performing an ethics audit, Perego says. Ask if individuals feel encouraged to raise ethical concerns and, if they have concerns, do they know where to take them. Ask if they feel confident that their supervisors or directors are making ethical decisions. This cultural assessment can paint a clear picture of where an organization stands ethically, and expose risks for unethical behaviors. 

However, if an organization is to be held to a high ethical standard, leadership buy-in is absolutely critical. “If people at the leadership level don’t care about ethics, the likelihood that [those leaders] are going to influence the behavior of people in the organization is very small,” Perego says. “If I see my boss doing things that are unethical, or if that’s the culture – you cheat, you get ahead – then how would I be encouraged to do the right thing?”

Organizational ethics is not a static concept, Perego says. It should be active and evolving. “If you really want to change the culture of your organization, and you really want to minimize the opportunity for someone to do something that’s going to cause you embarrassment, then you need a multi-pronged strategy,” she says.

Unfortunately, even with a robust ethics posture in place, failure can still occur. Regardless of intention, ethical and legal problems are likely to arise, which is why it’s important to have a plan for managing scandal.

Managing Scandal

Stephanie York, vice president of Hennes Communications, is no stranger to handling scandals. Her firm works with the private, public and non-profit sectors to help prepare for and manage crisis. Additionally, York served as the director of communications for Akron, Ohio, during a particularly turbulent time in that city’s history. “I worked for three mayors in two weeks,” she laughs. “After working 23 years with the city of Akron, that’s what people know me for.”

York says there are three scenarios in scandal management. The first, and best possible situation, is full preparation.

Scandals may seem unpredictable, but there are archetypes, York says, that have been occurring throughout history. Sex scandals and financial mismanagement are two of the most common. 

York adds there are also vices that usually accompany these scandals, such as drinking or drug use that can be red flags. Additionally, an individual’s temperament can be indicative of their potential to create a scandal. Hot tempers and propensities for outbursts are clear warning signs.

“Before any scandal happens, you can do what’s called a vulnerability audit,” York says. By taking account of all potential risk factors, “you can create a crisis plan for any one of these scandals that could possibly happen.” This plan should include what will be communicated, who will be communicating, and who they will be communicating with, both internally and externally. When scandal hits, no time will be wasted organizing a strategy. Unfortunately, this type of preparation is rare, York says. Most organizations don’t start planning until they are mired in scandal. 

The second scenario is that an organization knows about an issue before the public. In this situation, it’s important to own the story and communicate the organization’s message clearly and authoritatively. “In this case, you break the news, you say ‘Here’s what happened, and here’s what we’re going to do so it doesn’t happen again,”” York says. The temptation often is to fix the problem internally and not address it publicly; however, this is a dangerous line to walk. Should the story get out, the cover-up could become more salacious than the initial incident. If something happens, York says, it’s best to confess, but quickly pivot the message to the solution that was applied.

The third, and worst-case scenario is that scandal breaks and it’s been reported. “In this case, we tell our clients to tell the truth, tell it all and tell it first,” York says. “You get that out there in the first news story, you respond – never say no comment – tell everything that you’re morally, legally and ethically able to tell.”

York’s perspective is unique, in that these principles were learned from the governmental side. The lessons she learned managing scandals in Akron she applies to her clients today. One of the most critical principles she learned, she says, was getting the city’s message out first. In one particular case, she says, the city waited much too long and was unable to control the message. “We had a good story, we had a truthful story,” she says, “but we just didn’t get it out quickly enough – we didn’t control the message. I learned a lot from that experience.” 

Taking from that experience, York was able to handle the next crisis more appropriately. An issue occurred involving the mayor, and the day the story broke, York coordinated a press conference. In front of the community and his colleagues, the mayor showed true contrition over what had transpired. Although the incident ultimately resulted in the mayor’s resignation, by reacting quickly and sincerely, the scandal was neutralized. “After he had some time to reflect, he decided to step down,” York says, “but I think he could have gone on to lead the city after that because he had come out and been completely honest and truthful.”

It’s not the act itself that’s damning, York adds, it’s what you do after the act that determines your legacy.

The Trust Bank

Scandal can hit at any time, and come from a multitude of avenues. That’s why it’s important to have a plan in place and to be able to respond to any number of potential problems. Gwinnett County, Ga., recently had to put their scandal management plan to the test when Commissioner Tommy Hunter took to social media with some personal opinions to which many of his constituents took offense. The media ran with the story, which became national news.

Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlotte Nash says that the county has had an ethics policy in place for decades, and it was most recently put to the test with the Hunter incident. She explains that an ethics panel of independent community stakeholders is put in place for every complaint that necessitates review, as was the case with Hunter. While the ethics panel investigated, though, Nash says her primary focus was rebuilding trust in the community. 

Trust is like a savings account, and the withdrawal, Nash says, is a lot quicker than the deposit. “You have to constantly be putting something in that savings account,” so when a scandal breaks, you’ll be able to draw on the community’s respect and support. This trust was rebuilt, she says, though a series of hearings where the public was invited to have their concerns heard, as well as clear communication through media channels about what was being done about the issue.

Throughout the scandal with Hunter and his social media posts, Nash says the county and the community learned several lessons. The most apparent was to be more clear about the limitations of the ethics policy. In matters that are not criminal, the harshest penalty for a county official is a public reprimand. Many in the community were not satisfied with this, and felt that the board should move to remove Hunter from his position – a dangerous territory, Nash says. Open communication about what the board could and couldn’t do from the start would have saved a lot of frustration. 

Additionally, compounding the confusion surrounding the issue, Hunter didn’t directly violate any concrete policy in his actions. Nash says the ethics policy, as it is written, has more to do with serious financial violations and corruption, not decorum and decency. “This was really about the line between personal and professional, and the good of the county.”

Ethics often exists in the gray areas, and it’s up to government leadership to take decisive action when problems arise. The board of commissioners voted unanimously to reprimand Hunter in late June. The commissioner respectfully declined to participate in this story.


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