Advisory Opinion No. 2000-71

Re: Peter Corr

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, Tiverton Planning Board member, a municipal appointed position, who recently was appointed as Tax Assessor for the Stone Bridge Water Authority in Tiverton, a municipal appointed position, requests an advisory opinion as to potential conflicts of interest by virtue of simultaneous service in these two positions.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the petitioner, Tiverton Planning Board member, a municipal appointed position, from simultaneously serving as Tax Assessor for the Stone Bridge Water Authority in Tiverton.

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 or her office for pecuniary gain, other than provided by law, for him(her)self, family, employer, business associate, or a business that he/she represents.

The petitioner, Vice Chairperson of the Tiverton Planning Board, recently was appointed as Tax Assessor to the Stone Bridge Water Authority in Tiverton. The Stone Bridge Water Authority is a quasi-municipal agency created in 1946. It supplies water to the North Tiverton Water Authority and the Tiverton Water Authority. The petitioner is a Tax Assessor member of a seven person board that oversees the operation of the water treatment plant. The Water Authority’s taxes are based upon the Town of Tiverton’s tax roles. The petitioner represents that the only matters regarding the Stone Bridge Water Authority that may come before the Planning Board would involve whether a proposed development within that district has water available through the Authority.

Sections 5(a) and 5(d) of the Code of Ethics do not create an absolute bar to simultaneous service as an appointed member of the Tiverton Planning Board and Tax Assessor for the Stone Bridge Water Authority in Tiverton. 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. The prohibition would extend to matters that affected the Stone Bridge Water Authority or the Tiverton Planning Board generally. A substantial conflict of interest is not apparent by the petitioner holding these positions and participating in matter which may only involve the other entity (i.e. participating as Tiverton Planning Board member where property will be served by Stone Bridge Water Authority water). A conflict might exist in a particular situation, however, if a matter before one of the boards financially impacted the other entity or the petitioner (i.e. litigation involving the Stone Bridge Water Authority and the petitioner and a project applicant or Planning Board substantive review of Stone Bridge Water Authority decisions). Additionally, recusal would be required if the petitioner believed that his independence of judgment would be impaired with respect to his participation on Planning Board matters.

In sum, while simultaneous service in 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 he participated in. If the petitioner believes that his independence of judgment would be impaired or the applicant is involved in litigation or some other matter that affects the Stone Bridge Water Authority or himself, he should recuse from participation. In that event, 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 Planning Board/Stone Bridge Water Authority and with 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)
36-14-7(a)

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-109
99-103
99-89
99-12
98-104
98-3
98-99
98-87
98-37
98-21
96-26
96-9
95-22
93-81
91-63
87-16

Keywords:

Dual Public Roles