The questions raised about endorsements of, and contributions to, candidates by sitting city councilmembers and other government officials are sticky ones. Most who work for or advise local governments agree that there shouldn’t be specific policies addressing it. And, where cities have tried to address the question in a policy or code, they have not held up under scrutiny, including from the courts as they are seen as a violation of our rights to free speech.
While individual free speech rights are incredibly important, being a public official means subjecting yourself to public scrutiny. As stated in Chapter 12: Ethical Issues of the Mayor and Councilmember Handbook published by the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (MRSC), “Like it or not, the public expects you [elected officials] to behave according to higher standards than the next person on the street.”
This statement suggests that there are times when those in elected offices should probably limit their individual freedoms to better serve the greater good of the community. In stronger terms, as representatives empowered by voters to serve in non-partisan positions, sitting elected officials would better serve the community that elected them by refraining from making public declarations for or against candidates, whether it be city, county, station, or national level positions. The benefits, whatever they are, are small compared to the costs of undermining public confidence and trust in government. From much of what we have read or heard lately, candidate endorsements can unnecessarily polarize local politics. While it is impossible to keep partisan politics out of just about anything these days, elected officials shouldn’t willingly bring that discussion into the local election process.
Every one of our current councilmembers and our mayor were elected to work toward the same goal — making our city a better place to live, work and play while representing all community members. City councilmembers and the mayor were not elected to use their position and the bully pulpit to increase their own political power.
What any person says to another person privately is, of course, their right and their own concern. Giving someone your individual opinion or recommendation about who to support or vote for when asked in private shouldn’t be concerning.
However, when you became an elected official, you became a public officer. The MSRC handbook further states that “Public officers have the duty of serving the public with undivided loyalty, uninfluenced by any private interest or motive. Care must be taken not to violate this duty of trust, either in appearance or in fact.”
For better or for worse, public officials must accept the simple fact that they are “always on,” when speaking publicly and all too often these days when speaking privately. When public officials take it upon themselves to support or attack a candidate for office publicly, it frequently does more harm than good—possibly for the candidate but definitely for the public they have been elected to represent.