Writing a blog hosted by the Huffington Post has elicited concern among some of ICMA's members. The complaints were not the content of the blog, but its association with the Huffington Post.
A city manager wrote, "Can someone please explain to me how a blog on the Huffington Post does not run afoul of Tenet 7 of the Code of Ethics? That is clearly a website with a particular political point of view and I do not believe that ICMA has any business associating with it."
Another manager wrote, "To refer to the Huffington Post as 'one of the hottest news websites on the planet' is an appalling display of partisanship. The Huffington Post is far from an objective, non-political media outlet. ...For our organization to align itself in any manner, or so proudly promote such association, is not only offensive but also deeply hypocritical in light of Tenet 7 of the code of ethics. Since we as members are bound to walk a politically neutral line, I would hope the organization would do the same."
The concerns we've heard illustrate the sensitivity that city and county managers and their professional staffs have about being perceived as "political." Those of us who serve the public are taught that we should do so with "neutral competence." Does this mean, however, that we completely fade into the background? Does it mean we avoid new ideas? No, but it is a tightrope.
Thus, the discussion of appropriateness of this blog on this site becomes a learning opportunity. Managers across the country and internationally are evaluating whether or not to have a blog, use Twitter, or have a Facebook page. They will be judged not only by what they say (and they will be), but where they say it. Are these appropriate ways for managers to communicate with the public? The answer is not yet clear and it won't likely be the same for all communities and all managers.
As for The Huffington Post, it is an electronic publisher and, objectively, is one of the most popular sites on the web; it is also a publisher with a point of view. HuffPost offered ICMA an opportunity to reach a wide, non-traditional audience with no preconditions and no editorial control over the content of the blog. Likewise, this blog in no way endorses the editorial content contained in the HuffPost any more than an opinion column endorses the positions of venerable print publishers. There is also clearly no partisan content in the blog itself. Nonetheless, a blog appearing on a site with such strong views raises legitimate concerns. Is it appropriate for ICMA to be on this site?
In expressing their concerns, the members above referenced ICMA's Code of Ethics. This is important because the Code is arguably the most important part of ICMA:
"ICMA members adhere to the principles of the ICMA Code of Ethics, developed in 1924, as a condition of membership and agree to submit to a peer-to-peer review of their conduct under established enforcement procedures" (Intro to the Code, which is available in its entirety at icma.org.)
Tenet 7 states that members shall "refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators" and "refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body." The "Guidelines" to Tenet 7, explain that the tenet is intended to specifically encourage political neutrality as it relates to the process of electing candidates to public office (emphasis added).
The Tenet and the Guidelines do not prohibit expression of opinions on issues, political ideas, or the association with people with political ideas. This I confirmed with the ICMA director of ethics. Publishing a non-partisan blog on this site it not a violation of Code of Ethics; however, not being a violation of the Code doesn't make something a good idea.
ICMA is first, last, and always a professional and membership organization for appointed professional managers. Our goal is to improve the quality of life in communities by improving the performance of our members. We are not interested in polarizing our members; and, we do want to reach a wider audience about local government and professional management. We also want to stimulate critical thinking about how we function in the 21st century.
What do you think? Post your comments and let me know.
We are all still learning how to best use the ever changing world of electronic communications. Neither ICMA nor I are wed to having a blog on the Huffington Post or even having a blog. These are experiments. Some will work; some won't.
Follow Ron Carlee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/roncarlee