Advisory Opinion No. 2000-6

Re: Renee Meyer

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a New Shoreham Island Free Library Board of Trustees member, a municipal appointed position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether she may accept remuneration as the Board’s Treasurer, given that the Town Council approved the Board’s request to compensate her for her services.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, a New Shoreham Island Free Library Board of Trustees member, a municipal appointed position, may accept remuneration for her services as Treasurer, provided that she neither 1) requested compensation from the Board, nor 2) participated in the Board’s efforts to obtain such compensation from the Town Council.

The petitioner advises that the Office of the Town Treasurer handled the accounting for the Island Free Library Board of Trustees until February of 1999. Thereafter, the Board of Trustees became responsible for its own accounting, resulting in an expansion of her duties as Treasurer. She represents that in August of 199 her fellow Board members proposed compensating her for the extra work her position now entailed. She indicates that, at the Library’s request, the Town Council voted to provide her with remuneration, provided that she received written approval from the Ethics Commission.

Under the Code of Ethics, the petitioner may not have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in any employment, transaction which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of her duties in the public interest. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(a). A substantial conflict of interest occurs if she has reason to believe or expect that she or any family member or business associate, or any business by which she is employed will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss by reason of her official activity. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). Further, she may not use her position or confidential information received through her position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for herself, a business associate, or any business which she represents or by which she is employed. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d).

In General Commission Advisory Opinion No. 6, the Commission clarified the responsibilities of all public officials who are in a position to grant themselves salary increases, or who may have any role in the granting of such increases. The Commission stated that, in general, it would be a violation of the Code of Ethics for a public official to vote on, participate in the discussion of, promote or otherwise have any role in the granting of a raise or increase of benefits to himself of herself. Where a public official takes any action with regard to salary or other benefits of employment which will benefit him or her directly, a probable violation of the Code of Ethics will occur. The Commission referred specifically to Celona v. R.I. Ethics Commission, 544 A.2d 582, wherein the Court stated:

There is no language in the … statute that limits violations to circumstances where a public official renders a decision that results in financial gain. Rather … a conflict exists if the public official has reason to believe or expect that he [or she] *** will derive a direct monetary gain *** by reason of his [or her] official activity.

The Commission consistently has ruled that public officials may not introduce, participate in the discussion of, or vote on compensation and health benefit issues affecting themselves in their current term of office. See A.O. 97-64 (concluding that Code of Ethics does not bar the members of the Pawtuxet River Authority from adopting a clause in their by-laws that would allow members to continue serving as voting representatives beyond the termination dates of their appointments in the absence of a replacement, provided the adopted by-law does not confer an economic benefit on the current members of the Authority.; A.O. 93-74 (finding that a Little Compton Town Councilor may not participate and vote on matters concerning health care benefits for various town officials given that some Town Councilors, although not himself, receive health care benefits from the town since he could receive such benefits in the future); A.O. 89-27 (concluding that Little Compton Town Council members may not consider or vote upon increase in stipend received by Councilors if those members voting would directly benefit from it); and A.O. 99-115 (advising members of the Glocester Housing Authority may not receive compensation for their efforts if the members of the Housing Authority themselves take action to provide for or set their own compensation, but allowing another body, i.e. Town Council, to set compensation for the Authority members independent of any action by the Housing Authority members). Even where town councilors have submitted salary increases subject to approval by the electorate, the Commission has found probable violations where the pay raise was submitted by and for currently serving council members. See A.O. 89-32.

Here, the Commission concludes that the petitioner may accept compensation set by the Town Council provided that she neither requested remuneration from the Board of Trustees nor participated in the Library’s request for compensation from the Town Council. In the event that she played any role in bringing the request for compensation to the Council, such as her participation and/or vote in the Board’s consideration of the issue, she is prohibited from accepting any financial benefit awarded by the Council.

Code Citations:

36-14-5(a)
36-14-5(d)
36-14-7(a)

Related Case Law:

Celona v. R.I. Ethics Commission, 544 A.2d 582 (R.I. 1988)
Related Advisory Opinions:
GCA 6
99-115
99-46
98-9
97-130
97-128
96-21
95-52
93-74
89-32
89-27
83-69

Keywords:

Compensation
Financial interest