Advisory Opinion No. 2000-54

Kenneth J. Swain

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, the Town of Charlestown Tax Assessor, a municipal appointed position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether he also may serve as the Dunn’s Corners Fire District Tax Collector/Assessor, a regional elected position.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner’s simultaneous service as the Charlestown Tax Assessor, a municipal appointed position, and the Dunn’s Corners Fire District Tax Collector/Assessor, a regional elected position, would not, in and of itself, present a conflict of interest under the Code of Ethics.

The petitioner indicates that he would like to seek election to the position of the Dunn’s Corners Fire District Tax Collector/Assessor, in addition to his current responsibilities as the Town of Charlestown Tax Assessor. He advises that the Fire District encompasses approximately two thousand property owners in the Town of Westerly and another two thousand property owners in the Town of Charlestown. As the Charlestown Tax Assessor, he sets the value for all properties located within the town limits. He represents that the District Tax Collector/Assessor collects taxes set by the property values provided by the other two municipalities. He indicates that he is not aware of the District adjusting or changing property assessments set by the two municipalities.

Under the Code of Ethics, a public official or employee may not use his position, other than as provided by law, to benefit himself, and may not participate in any matter in which he has an interest in substantial conflict with his public duties. A substantial conflict of interest exists if, for example, an official has reason to believe or expect that he or an employer will derive a direct monetary gain or loss by reason of his official activity. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 36-14-7(a). Also, R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(b) prohibits a public official or employee from accepting other employment that will either impair his independence of judgment as to his official duties or employment or require him to disclose confidential information acquired by him in the course of his official duties. Finally, R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d) provides that a public official may not use his office for pecuniary gain, other than provided by law, for himself, family, employer, business associate, or a business that he represents.

Sections 5(a) and 5(d) of the Code of Ethics do not create an absolute bar to the petitioner’s simultaneous service as the Charlestown Tax Assessor and the District Tax Collector/Assessor. Rather, those provisions require a matter by matter evaluation and determination as to whether substantial conflicts of interest exist with respect to carrying out an official’s duty in the public interest. Here, the petitioner advises that the District Tax Collector/ Assessor collects taxes based upon property values set by the Towns of Charlestown and Westerly. While there may be overlap in the petitioner’s public roles, a substantial conflict of interest is not apparent by the petitioner holding these positions which may only involve the other public entity, such as by using a property valuation established by the Town of Charlestown.

Further, in Advisory Opinion 96-17, the Commission previously held that the Code of Ethics did not prohibit the Dunn’s Corners Fire District Tax Collector from simultaneously serving as the Charlestown Tax Collector. There, the Commission concluded that, although the jurisdictional areas overlapped, the activities of the District Tax Collector and the Charlestown Tax Collector were separate and distinct. Similarly, the Commission concludes that the petitioner may simultaneously serve as the Charlestown Tax Assessor and the District Tax Collector/Assessor without running afoul of the Code of Ethics.

In the event that any matter comes before either the Town of Charlestown or the Dunn’s Corners Fire District which would have a financial impact on the other body or the petitioner himself, or which he believes would impair his independence of judgment as to his official duties or require him to disclose confidential, the petitioner should (a) notify the appropriate entity, in writing, of the nature of his interest in the matter at issue, and (b) recuse from any participation or voting in connection with such matter. Notice of recusal should be filed with the Town of Charlestown/the Dunn’s Corners Fire District and the Ethics Commission in accordance with R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-6. In sum, while simultaneous service in either of the two positions is not barred by the Code of Ethics, the relevant statute and regulations require that the petitioner be particularly vigilant as to the matters in which he participates.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-100
99-62
99-12
98-75
96-17
94-36
90-75
90-58
90-49

Keywords:

Candidate
Confidential information
Dual public roles