Advisory Opinion No. 2000-61

Re: Janet G. Dannecker

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner requests an advisory opinion as to whether she may seek election to and serve on the Foster Town Council, a municipal elected position, while simultaneously employed by the Foster School Department as either a full-time or substitute teacher, a municipal employee position.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner may seek election to and serve on the Foster Town Council, a municipal elected position, while employed by the Foster School Department as either a full-time or substitute teacher, a municipal employee position. Additionally, if elected, the petitioner may participate in the Council's consideration of the Town budget provided that the Council does not consider the School Department's budget as a separate line-item. If the Council considers the School Department budget as a separate line-item, given the petitioner’s employment relationship with the Department, the petitioner should recuse herself from any discussions or votes relating to this line-item.

Under the Code of Ethics, a public official or employee may not participate in any matter in which she has an interest, financial or otherwise, 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), 36-14-7(a). An official will have an interest in substantial conflict with her 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, employer, business associate, or a business that she represents. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 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 her independence of judgment as to her official duties or employment or require her to disclose confidential information acquired by her in the course of her official duties. Finally, R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d) provides that a public official may not use her office for pecuniary gain, other than provided by law, for herself, a family member, employer, business associate, or a business that she represents.

The Commission previously has concluded that individuals may simultaneously serve as members of a school committee within a municipality while that municipality’s school department employs them or their family members. Likewise, the Commission has held that individuals may serve on a city or town council while a school department within that municipality simultaneously employs them. See e.g., A.O. 95-44; A.O. 95-34; and A.O. 95-15. Accordingly, the Commission concludes here that the petitioner may seek election to and, if successful, serve on the Foster Town Council while simultaneously employed as a full-time or substitute teacher by the Foster School Department.

Further, the Commission has opined that town council members with family members in their town’s school departments may vote on the town’s overall budget even if by so doing they are voting on school department matters that affect members of their families. The Commission has reasoned that in circumstances such as those, voting on an overall town budget is sufficiently remote from specific items within a school department budget so as not to constitute a substantial conflict of interest. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(a). Therefore, in the event that the petitioner is elected to the Town Council, she may participate in discussions and votes on the town budget; however, she may not vote on or discuss the school budget as a line item or matters related to personnel issues affecting her as a School Department employee. Notice of recusal should be filed with both the Town of Foster and the Ethics Commission in accordance with R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-6.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

2000-22
99-89
99-43
98-88
98-75
98-37
97-35
97-19
96-69
95-72
95-44
95-34
95-15
93-86
87-6
83-35
81-15

Keywords:

Budgets
Candidate
Dual public roles