Ethics for community planning

Ethics goes beyond doing what is legally right and addresses proper behavior and expectations for those tasked with the responsibility of planning communities in their roles as public officials representing the public good.

Quite often as a Michigan State University Extension educator, I receive questions regarding the conduct of a public official on a planning commission. In many cases, the answer I provide comes down to explaining the difference between what is legal and what is ethical.

Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Potter Stewart once stated:

“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do.”

While the law provides clear responsibilities and limits to officials and other individuals responsible for the planning of communities, there is a great deal of flexibility where individuals or groups must make judgment decisions in the best interests of their community, and being guided by strong ethical principles ensures that the best decisions are being made.

And therein lays the problem: people often have different and opposing ethical standards. Ethics are developed from an individual or group’s beliefs, values and morals, which vary from person-to-person and can often be in direct conflict and opposition to another’s.

To address these differences and to avoid conflict, communities often adopt a code of ethical standards which they agree to abide by while serving in a public capacity for the common good of a community. This practice provides a clear understanding to officials and the public they serve as to expected conduct. Many organizations and individuals involved in community planning also adopt a code of ethics to ensure that their clients and the general public those clients serve also have this understanding.

The Michigan Association of Planning and the American Planning Association have excellent codes of ethics that you can find on their websites – Michigan Association of Planning Code of Ethics and American Planning Association Plan of Ethics – that  provide solid foundations for the development of your code of ethics.