Advisory Opinion No. 2000-21

Re: Harvey E. Goulet, Jr.

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a Pawtucket Housing Authority Commission member, a municipal appointed position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether he may take part in discussions and/or negotiations with the Laborers’ Union of the Pawtucket Housing Authority given that his son-in-law works for the Housing Authority and is a member of that union.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, a member of the Pawtucket Housing Authority Commission (Housing Authority), a municipal appointed position, may not participate in negotiations, votes or other matters affecting the labor contract with the Laborers’ Union of the Housing Authority, a labor organization representing half of the approximately 45 employees of the Housing Authority, given that his son-in-law is an employee represented by that union. The petitioner's participation in the negotiations or votes on the contract would trigger the prohibitions set forth in R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a) and 5(d). Here, the exception set forth in R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(b) does not apply since the negotiations affect a subset of employees in the Housing Authority and would only affect approximately 22 people.

The Code of Ethics prohibits public officials from taking any official action that is likely to have a direct financial or monetary impact on, among others, a family member or from having an interest which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of their duties in the public interest. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 36-14-7(a). A substantial conflict of interest occurs if the public official has reason to believe or expect that a family member will derive a direct monetary gain by reason of her official activity. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). However, an official will not have an interest in substantial conflict with her public duties if any benefit accrues to the official or a member of her family "as a member of a business, profession, occupation or group, or of any significant and definable class of persons within the business, profession, occupation or group, to no greater extent than any other similarly situated member of the business, profession, occupation or group, or the significant and definable class of persons within the business, profession, occupation or group." R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(b). Finally, a son-in-law is a family member under Regulation 5005.

We have concluded that the exception set forth in R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(b) does not apply in situations where the petitioner's family member, although an employee, is among a small group of employees or a subset of employees to be affected by the negotiations or any matter under consideration. In Advisory Opinion 97-65, we advised a member of the Scituate School Committee, who requested guidance as to whether he could participate in the votes or negotiations regarding labor contracts with three non-certified employee groups, that he could not participate in negotiations, votes or other matters affecting the labor contract with the teacher's aides since his wife was one of 45 teachers' aides in the School Department. In that opinion, we specifically concluded, "an employee group of 45 members in a single school system does not constitute such a significant and definable class of person so as to trigger the 7(b) exception." Similarly, in Advisory Opinion 98-32, the Commission concluded that a School Committee member should not participate in negotiations, votes or other matters affecting the labor contract with the labor organization representing 152 unclassified employees of the School Department, given that his wife and mother-in-law are unclassified employees and his mother-in-law is one of 45 unclassified employees that would be affected by a clause under negotiations regarding family Blue Cross benefits for retired employees. See also A.O. 97-75 (advising the Chief of Human Resources for the Department of Environmental Management that she may not participate in negotiations for a settlement agreement with a bargaining unit for employees of the Division of Parks & Recreation since her brother was one of the potential recipients of back pay, which was the focus of the ongoing settlement and since an employee group of approximately 85 members within a single division did not constitute such a significant and definable class of persons so as to trigger the 7(b) exception); A.O. 99-15 (concluding that Providence City Councilor may not participate in the decision on whether to ratify a Memorandum of Agreement that would recognize Local 1033 as the exclusive bargaining unit for twenty-seven additional city employee positions given that her brother serves in one of the positions affected by the Agreement); A.O. 99-54 (finding that a Tiverton School Committee member shall not participate in negotiations, votes or other matters affecting the labor contract with the R.I. Council 94, AFSME, a labor organization representing 44 support employees of the School Department, given that his son-in-law is a support employee represented by that local).

After considering the relevant provisions of the Code of Ethics and past advisory opinions, we conclude that the petitioner may not participate in the discussions or negotiations or votes with the Laborers’ Union of the Housing Authority given the interest of his family member, namely his son-in-law, in this contract. Here, the negotiations concern a subset of the employees of the Housing Authority, which includes the petitioner's son-in-law and, accordingly, is distinguishable from the past opinions where we have permitted participation under the § 7(b) exception. Therefore, since the negotiations concern a small group and a subset of employees of the Housing Authority, the Code of Ethics, namely R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a) and 5(d), would prohibit the petitioner from participating in the negotiations or votes concerning this contract. We remind the petitioner when recusing, to complete a recusal form and send a copy of it to the Ethics Commission in accordance with Section 6 of the Code of Ethics

Code Citations:

36-14-5(a)
36-14-5(d)
36-14-5005
36-14-6
36-14-7(a)
36-14-7(b)

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-54
99-36
99-15
99-4
98-172
98-162
98-130
98-32
97-118
97-65
97-52
96-96
96-60
95-54
95-63
95-64
96-69
95-70
95-75
95-23
94-44
94-29
94-27
92-53

Keywords:

Class exception
Contracts
Family member: public employment
Negotiations
Unions/bargaining unit