Was that Ethical?

by Joanne Garnett, FAICP, Partner, Orion Planning + Design

Ethics.  The very word can cause some to slump over in an instant sleep of boredom.  Others (and I know you’re out there!) think it’s a fascinating topic that can be discussed for hours.  The rest of us are somewhere in the middle, believing it’s a relevant and important subject that applies to all facets of our lives; however, we don’t want to dwell on it endlessly.  This latter group may think the concept of ethics is kind of like a duck:  if it waddles like a duck, quakes like a duck, and swims like a duck, then it must be a duck.  So therefore if something looks unethical, sounds unethical, and appears unethical, it’s probably unethical.  In even more simple terms, unethical behavior doesn’t pass the smell test.

The only problem is life is filled with shades of grey.  While there are certainly human behaviors that are universally accepted as being morally bankrupt, dirty practices, or just plain sleazy, there are other instances where at first blush it is not easy to figure out whether that behavior is ethical or unethical.  That’s where principles and codes for professional conduct come into play, and it is why it is so important to have them for the planning process. 

This brings us to the American Planning Association’s (APA) Ethical Principles in Planning and the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.  Found on APA’s website (www.planning.org/ethics), the Principles in Planning and Code of Ethics are the guides and rules for ethical conduct by planners and those participating in the planning process. They differ in one significant way, though:  The Principles are guides for the conduct of public and private sector planners, appointed and elected officials, and citizens involved in the planning process, and the Code includes enforceable Rules of Conduct for certified planners.  Both statements also outline the principles of planning that all practitioners should or must aspire toward, meaning that the Principles focus on what we should be doing, and the Code includes the ‘thou shalt nots.’      

Although stated a little differently in each document, the overarching aspirational ethical themes are generally the same, as is shown below in an abridged form. 

Ethical Principles in Planning
AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
The planning process must continuously pursue and faithfully serve the public interest.
Overall Responsibility to the Public: Our primary obligation is to serve the public interest...formulated through continuous and open debate. We shall achieve high standards of professional integrity, proficiency, and knowledge.
Planning process participants continuously strive to achieve high standards of integrity and proficiency so that public respect for the planning process will be maintained
Responsibility to Clients and Employers: We owe diligent, creative, and competent performance of the work we do... Such performance shall always be consistent with our faithful service to the public interest.
APA members who are practicing planners continuously pursue improvements in their planning competence as well as in the development of peers and aspiring planners. They recognize that enhancement of planning as a profession leads to greater public respect for the planning process and thus serves the public interest.
Responsibility to our Profession and Colleagues: We shall contribute to the development of and respect for our profession by improving knowledge and techniques, making work relevant to solutions of community problems, and increasing public understanding of planning activities.

The AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct goes further by identifying 26 Rules of Conduct which are enforceable and have consequences for noncompliance that range anywhere from sanctions to the loss of certification.  Because they are enforceable, the rules are also mandatory requirements that must be complied with by all certified planners.  A sampling of the rules follows:

  • We shall not deliberately or with reckless indifference fail to provide adequate, timely, clear and accurate information on planning issues.
  • We shall not engage in private discussions with decision makers in the planning process in any manner prohibited by law or by agency rules, procedures, or custom.
  • We shall not misstate our education, experience, training, or any other facts which are relevant to our professional qualifications. 
  • We shall not use the power of any office to seek or obtain a special advantage that is not a matter of public knowledge or is not in the public interest. 
  • We shall not accept work for a fee, or pro bono, that we know cannot be performed with the promptness required by the prospective client, or that is required by the circumstances of the assignment.
  • We shall not direct or coerce other professionals to make analyses or reach findings not supported by available evidence.
  • We shall not unlawfully discriminate against another person.

Common themes related to public interest, clarity of purpose, and professional competency pop up throughout the entire list of rules. Perhaps the one that sums it all up the best is this:  We shall neither deliberately, nor with reckless indifference, commit any wrongful act, whether or not specified in the Rules of Conduct, that reflects adversely on our professional fitness. 

APA has about 38,000 members, and included in that number are 16,600 AICP-certified planners.  The good news is only a small number of ethical cases are brought before the organization on an annual basis as either an informal request for advice or a formal filing to investigate potential misconduct.  Regardless of whether or not someone is an APA member, that person can contact APA’s Ethics Officer to request informal advice about a particular situation.  In addition, AICP members can ask for a formal opinion from the AICP Ethics Committee on items pertaining to the Code and Professional Conduct.  This is intended to help the member determine whether certain actions conform to the Code and Professional Conduct for AICP planners….or not.  Finally, the actual filing of ethical complaints against a certified planner is handled by the Ethics Officer (information about that process is located at www.planning.org/ethics/ethicscode, D.  Also keep an eye on the website for the latest ethical discussions and statistics.)      

AICP maintains a yearly tally of the number of informal ethics-related inquiries they receive and how those inquiries relate to the Code.  Can you guess the number one issue that led to requests for informal advice and ethics cases in 2015 and 2016?  Hint:  It’s conflicted and always interesting.  Yes, it focuses on conflicts of interest.  Advice about conflicts of interest accounted for over one-third of the requests for advice and ethics cases in both 2015 and 2016.  A summary of the requests by topic and year are outlined in the table below.    

Requests for Informal Advice and Ethics Cases

2015 - 40 Total
2016 - 88 Total
Topic
Number
of Requests
Topic
Number
of Requests
Conflicts of Interest
15
Conflicts of Interest
31
Quality of Practice
10
Honest and Fair Dealing
24
Legal and Ethical Conduct
10
Respect for Confidentiality
24
Honest and Fair Dealing
8
Legal and Ethical Conduct
22
False, Deceptive, or Unsubstantiated Statements
6
Quality of Practice
19
Loyalty to Employer
5
Abuse of Position
16
Misuse of AICP Credential
5
Loyalty to Employer
16
Respect for Confidentiality
4
False, Deceptive, or Unsubstantiated Statements
11
Abuse of Position
4
Private Communication with Decision Makers
11
Private Communication with Decision Makers
1
Misuse of AICP Credential
6
Lack of Cooperation with Ethics Compliance
1
Lack of Cooperation with Ethics Compliance
4
Source: AICP Ethics, www.planning.org.

 

 

Happily, for our profession, the instances of ethics cases that are formally filed is very low.  In 2016 there were 12 cases, representing way less than 1 percent of all AICP members.  Half of those cases were dismissed, and the remainder were settled.  The cases that were dismissed focused on charges of abuse of position; false, deceptive, or unsubstantiated statements; legal and ethical conduct; loyalty to employer/conflict of interest; private communication with decision makers; and quality of practice.  Five of the six cases that were settled related to the misuse of the AICP credential, with all of the parties agreeing to correct their business cards, websites, and so on by removing AICP after their names.  The sixth case pertained to abuse of position/quality of practice/ethical conduct, and that planner received a letter of admonition.   

All of this is to show that AICP takes the credential and its Code of Ethics very seriously.  In turn, APA stands by the Ethical Principles in Planning.  We who are planners and those who are interested in the planning process have much to gain by adhering to these principles, and those that are certified planners are obligated to comply with the Code of Ethics. 

In my opinion, acting ethically gives us a lot:  community support because we are known for treating everyone equally, good relations with colleagues, clarity in communicating with appointed and elected officials, and an ability to sleep well at night when you know you did the right thing.  In the end, paying attention to our moral and ethical compasses will lead to better plans, better communities, better processes.  And if you find yourself in a community or job that does not value good ethics or knowingly attempts to compromise your ethical principles, it’s time to dust off your resume and move on.  It’s hard to do but completely worth it because your ethical standing and the value of solid planning practice depends on it. 


Orion Planning + Design

Orion Planning + Design is a multi-disciplined firm specializing in the planning and design of communities of lasting value. The firm was formed to bring together highly-skilled planners and designers that share a common philosophy in practice and enjoy the consulting business. We believe in collaborative planning processes and place-based context sensitive planning solutions. We also believe in a strong team environment and a locally driven process for planning and ordinance development, and our services always include detailed guidance on how to make the plan a reality.  Orion Planning + Design is an LLC formed and registered in the State of Colorado in 2011. The firm is owned by seven partners with the company’s headquarters in Boulder, Colorado and six other offices across the United States, including Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming.  Visit www.orionplanningdesign.com.


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Joanne Garnett, FAICP, is a partner with Orion Planning + Design and is based in Sheridan, Wyoming.  She has been a practicing planner in both the public and private sectors, working primarily in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.  She’s a past president and board member of MAP, WYOPASS, WPR, Western Central Chapter-APA, American Institute of Certified Planners, and American Planning Association.  She currently serves on the Center for a Vital Community in Sheridan and spends a lot of time trying to keep her two cats in line (unsuccessfully).


Published in January 2018

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