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How to Adopt a Code of Ethics

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One City’s Experience
By: Terry L. Fitzwater
City of Elk Grove, California

Overview:

There are various methodologies to use to develop a city code of ethics. No matter the road map you use to adopt one, a key is citizen ownership in its development and ultimate buy-in of the final product. Our city created ownership by having a community meeting. Staff facilitated the meeting and participated in the exchange of dialog. This too is a key, for ideas can be presented that are not ethics related but more policy oriented. The group must be kept on task and good facilitation requires educated input.

Process:

A process that worked well for our city is as follows:

Discuss the need for an Ethics policy at your council meeting.
Council buy-in to the need for a policy is essential for support begins at the top of any organization. Council should direct staff to return with a document for council review and consideration.

Establish a date for the community meeting.
Our city posted our intent to have a community meeting four weeks in advance of the date. It was felt this was the minimum time needed to allow for citizen notification and preparation.

Establish ground rules for discussion.
We had two: (1) all topics were open for discussion, and, (2) group consensus would drive additional discussion. As it pertains to the first rule, the only exception was the topic had to be ethics and not policy related. As it pertains to the second rule, if the group did not feel a topic was focused on the task at hand, it was not discussed. This helped to establish a group that was self-regulating and focused on the task at hand.

Research and have examples of Codes available for distribution.
This too helps focus and examples are a powerful tool. The bottom line here is a number of cities have developed excellent codes of ethics. Take advantage of their expertise and take advantage if language someone else has developed works for your city.

Charge the group with the responsibility of continuing the discussion off site.
You can spend a great deal of time on code development. Use the initial meeting to discuss those items that could make up a code. Send the group home with instructions to continue a dialog and to return with a draft code.

Receive group input and offer feedback.
The group reported its findings back to the city facilitator via e-mail. This was done to save time. The document represented the group’s collective thoughts on a code. The city facilitator reserved the right to edit for content as a means of ensuring the group remained on task for a code and not a policy. This involved some give and take and a few back and forth e-mails, in order to move to the next phase.

Place the Code on the web site and solicit other opportunities for publication.
Elk Grove’s code was placed on the city’s web site and it was published in the newspaper. The purpose was to solicit additional citizen input. That is, input from those not in attendance at the first meeting. A telephone number and an e-mail address were included to insure the capture of this additional citizen comment.

Use the additional input to finalize a policy.
The comments received were incorporated into the draft document and once again distributed to the group for consensus of applicability. A series of e-mails and telephone conversations led once again to group consensus on a final document.

Obtain council approval.
The final document was presented to council in open session as a regular action item.

Summary:

Not every process in applicable in every situation. However, one aspect of the process described here is essential–ownership. Whatever you can do to create ownership will help in the subsequent adoption of your code.


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