Advisory Opinion No. 2000-72

Re: Elizabeth C. Kelley-Guernon

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a teacher at the North Scituate Elementary School, a municipal employee position, who also is a candidate for Glocester School Committee, a municipal elected position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether there is a conflict of interest serving on the Glocester School Committee given that her spouse is also a member of that Committee.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, a teacher at the North Scituate Elementary School, a municipal employee position, and candidate for Glocester School Committee, a municipal elected position, may serve on the Glocester School Committee notwithstanding the fact that her spouse is also a member of that Committee. While prohibitions regarding nepotism are an important part of the Code of Ethics, no existing statutes or regulations would prohibit spouses from serving on the same Board at the same time absent some showing that one spouse’s service inherently or unavoidably would affect the interests of the other spouse, which is not the case here.

The Code of Ethics provides that a public official or employee shall not have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in any employment or transaction which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest. A substantial conflict of interest occurs if the official or employee has reason to believe or expect that he or any family member will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss by reason of his official activity. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 7(a). Also, a public official or employee may not use his public position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for himself or any member of his immediate family. R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d).

As to whether spouses may serve simultaneously on the Glocester School Committee, there is no provision in the Code of Ethics that would prohibit such service. Since each spouse must be elected independently by the qualified electorate, there is no evidence that one spouse could participate or improperly assist the other spouse in obtaining a position on this Committee and, accordingly, the provisions of R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a) and 5(d) are not implicated. See A.O. 98-132 (advising three brothers that they could simultaneously serve on the Board of Utility Commissioners for the Pascoag Fire District); and A.O. 96-117 (concluding that a North Kingstown School Committee member may participate and vote in the election of the Chair for the committee given that her spouse is a candidate for the position since such participation and vote has not been perceived as a conflict of interest, but rather as an exercise of their representative vote on behalf of their constituents regarding a public matter (i.e., the Chair of the body) rather than a private matter although carries with it financial remuneration set by charter). However, if elected, the petitioner is reminded that she may not participate in any matter that would affect the financial interests of her spouse.

Also, the petitioner is advised that this opinion solely addresses whether the Code of Ethics prohibits her from serving on the Glocester School Committee. This opinion does not address whether the District's bylaws or any other statutes, rulings or policies, specifically from the State Board of Elections or the Attorney General's Office, prohibits such simultaneous service.

This opinion is strictly limited to the facts stated herein and relates only to the application of the Rhode Island Code of Ethics. This Commission offers no opinion on the effect which any other statute, ordinance, constitutional or charter provision

or canons of professional ethics may have on your situation. Under the Code of Ethics advisory opinions are based on the representations made by, or on behalf

of, an official and are not adversary, or investigative proceedings.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

GCA-1
98-132
98-115
98-119
96-117
96-45

Keywords:

Nepotism