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The Ethics of City Manager Position Searches

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Bourey
May 19, 2023

It is clear from the current state of affairs across the country that this column about the ethics of local government manager searches is necessary. My credentials for writing this stem from having participated in countless searches as a prospect for positions, a local government manager seeking assistant managers and department directors as well as an executive search consultant assisting local governments in their searches. This column includes ethical advice for those seeking positions as well as those cities and counties hiring managers.

Let’s focus initially on local governments doing the hiring. Way too often at this time, cities and counties are going through elaborate searches only to show to others that an in-house candidate is the best person. This is incredibly unfair to outside applicants that spend a tremendous amount of time and effort to go through the process and often risk their current employer finding out about their application and thereby alienating them. I have a good manager friend that has been through a large number of search processes over the past year where the internal candidate was picked more than 90 percent of the time. I once applied for a city manager position, devoting a good 75 hours to the research and extensive application process, including a seven page response to essay questions, only for the city to hire an internal candidate. What was really salt in the wound was that the human resources department who was running the process never even looked at the material I submitted. Cities need to stop trying to hide behind a charade process and just hire the internal candidate if that is what they think is best.

For professionals seeking a manager position, I offer the following advice. First, be serious about every position you apply for. Don’t apply for a position just to see how you might fare. It ought to go without saying, but never apply for a position to leverage a better deal from your current employer. If you apply for the position, you should be dead serious about accepting an offer. Local governments go through a great deal of resources in the hiring process and “professionals” dipping their toe in the water is entirely unfair to an employer.

Managers working for a city or county need to expect that it is extremely likely that their current employer is going to learn about their application and should seriously consider telling them in advance. This is especially true if the state where the city or county where they have applied is a state like Florida with strict open meeting laws. I once went through a search for a county manager in Florida where the review of candidates by name, the interviews and the selection were all in publicly broadcasted meetings. Managers will be in a better position with their existing employer if they learn about the application from them.

It should go without saying that resumes and any information provided in the application process must be totally accurate and not misleading. It is so distressing that not telling the truth seems to be normal behavior for some public officials.

Managers also need to be entirely open about other searches they are involved with, particularly where they may be interviewing or being considered for an appointment. There have been numerous times where I was interviewing in multiple locations, one time in three locations in the same week. I always told each city/county about any interviews.

Now, for the really sticky situation where you have been offered a position. You have every right to have the full terms of the employment included in any offer. However, if at any time in the process you accept the position, you are ethically bound to follow through and work for that jurisdiction. This is even if you have accepted the position before all the final details have been worked out. If you are waiting for the final package to be provided, you can say you will accept if the final package is agreeable.

This gets even stickier if you have been offered a position and are also interviewing for another position or even have been offered another position. You must be entirely open about the status of other searches. I have been fortunate enough to have multiple offers on the table at the same time at three different times in my career. I always let each location know about the other offers. This is not an opportunity to play one against the other and get them into a bidding war. Be straight up with each and negotiate as if it were your only offer.

Finally, the International City/County Management Code of Ethics is crystal clear, if you accept a position with a local government you must work for that city or county for a minimum of two years unless there are extenuating circumstances. That never includes getting a better offer from another jurisdiction. Extenuating circumstances could include such situations as being requested to do something unethical or illegal or the position was totally different from what was represented.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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