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Ethics Courses and City Managers

December 11, 1988

Ethics courses "can give meaning" to one's accomplishments, says The Times editorial (Nov. 27). Right on. Such courses could help most city managers escape the opprobrious title of the "least liked city official." For example, once I was asked if the Laguna Beach city manager should be fired. The answer then was, "No. People just don't like city managers. Many don't use ethics."

So a city manager is often in trouble. There are homeowner groups (Once a city manager got fired for saying, "Forget homeowner associations. Who's running Laguna Beach, anyhow?"). There are shop owners, environmentalists and, always, developers. And most important, of course, city councils. Here's where a college ethics course comes in. Coping.

Let's take a hypothetical scenario in a town like Laguna Beach. The town's profile might go something like this:

Environmentalists seem to be in the majority, vote-wise. Most people are happy, right? Wrong. Not the grumbling, conservative minority. Not those who cry that the City Council is anti-business. Or the slow-growthers who think the city manager's sweeting up to the pro-growthers. Or environmentalists seeing the manager packing council chambers with a sports complex claque shouting for a sports development in Alta Laguna. Even worse. People imagining the manager uncorking his own pro-development agenda, end-running the City Council.

And what if city employees are afraid to cry out against the lash of a Bligh or a Queeg administration?

But can ethics prevent such caterwauling? Can a city manager, with all the ethics courses you please, satisfy all the people all the time? Must a city manager keep his philosophy corked even if it doesn't follow the City Council's?

Hey, he's only human, isn't he?

And you can't let staffers be loose cannons going helter-skelter all over the place, can you?

Yes, city managers are often in trouble. And when they are, do they make their own beds? And couldn't an ethics post-graduate course for city managers help guide them to just ends?


Laguna Beach

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