Advisory Opinion No. 2000-25

Re: Joseph Wells

QUESTION PRESENTED

The Johnston Assistant Town Solicitor requests an advisory opinion on behalf of the petitioner, a Johnston Town Councilor, a municipal elected position, as to whether he may participate and vote in the Council’s consideration of a zoning matter given that the applicant is a supervisor at a manufacturing company that employs the petitioner’s sister.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, a Johnston Town Councilor, a municipal elected position, may participate and vote in the Council’s consideration of a zoning matter despite the fact that the applicant is a supervisor at a manufacturing company that employs the petitioner's sister. The petitioner’s relationship with the applicant is too remote to implicate the prohibitions set forth in R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a) and 5(d).

Under the Code of Ethics, a public official may not participate in any matter in which he has an interest, financial or otherwise, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 36-14-7(a). An official has an interest in substantial conflict with his official duties if it is likely that a “direct monetary gain” or a “direct monetary loss” will accrue, by virtue of the public official’s activity, to the official, a family member, or his employer. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). Also, a public official may not use his public office or confidential information received through his office to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for himself, a family member, or an employer. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d).

After considering the relevant provisions of the Code of Ethics and past advisory opinions, we conclude that the petitioner does not have an interest in the zoning application that would preclude his participation. Here, the applicant supervises the petitioner’s sister in her private employment. The relevant provisions of the Code, namely sections 5(a) and 5(d), do not require recusal for matters involving a family member’s employer unless it is reasonably forseeable that the family member will be financially impacted by the current matter. Also, there is no evidence that the zoning matter would impact his sister’s employment. See A.O. 98-45 (advising the Administrator of the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers that he could participate in matters that relate to the telecommunications industry or bell Atlantic notwithstanding the fact this his spouse was employed by Bell Atlantic since there was no evidence that the matter would impact his wife’s employment interest).

The connection between official actions being taken by the petitioner as a Councilor and the zoning applicant, who also happens to be a supervisor at the company that employs the petitioner's sister is, at best, far too remote to preclude his participation in those matters. Therefore, absent some direct and current involvement between the petitioner and the applicant, we conclude that the Code of Ethics does not bar his participation and vote in the Council’s consideration of the zoning application.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-79
99-28
96-105
96-6
95-12
93-28
91-34

Keywords:

Family: private employment