Advisory Opinion No. 2000-77

Re: Ellen W. Yoder

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a South Kingstown School Committee member, a municipal appointed position, and Assistant Director of Finance for the Rhode Island Sea Grant College Program at the University of Rhode Island, a state employee position, requests an advisory opinion as to her participation in school district negotiations should she become the Treasurer of the URI/NEA/Professional Staff Association since some of the school district negotiations involve the NEA.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, South Kingstown School Committee member, a municipal appointed position, and Assistant Director of Finance for the Rhode Island Sea Grant College Program at the University of Rhode Island, a state employee position, may participate in school district negotiations with the NEA if she becomes treasurer of the URI/NEA/PSA. While the petitioner would not be able to participate in negotiations relating to other members of the URI/NEA/PSA given her business associate relationship with that bargaining unit, nothing in the Code of Ethics prohibits her participation in negotiations with a different local of the same umbrella organization. The Commission has previously concluded that public officials may negotiate matters relating to different locals of an umbrella labor organization since the business associate relationship does not exist as to the other locals. Therefore, the petitioner may participate in negotiations with the NEA as a South Kingstown School Committee member.

The Code of Ethics provides that the petitioner may not participate in any matter in which she, her family, or a business associate 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 she has a reason to believe or expect 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, a business associate, an employer, or any business which the public official represents. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). Also, pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d), the petitioner is prohibited from using her public position or confidential information received through his position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for herself, a business associate, or any business by which she is employed or represents. Finally, section 5(f) of the Code requires the petitioner to recuse herself from voting or participating in consideration and disposition of a matter involving a business associate.

In past advisory opinions, this Commission has concluded that public officials are "business associates," as the term is defined in R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-2(8), of those entities in which they served either as a member of the Board of Directors or in other leadership positions of the organization which permitted them to affect the financial objectives of the organization. If an official has such a leadership position, the Commission has required the official to recuse himself or herself if the interests of the organization appeared before his or her public agency. See A.O. 98-44 (advising that a Commissioner of the Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review should not participate in appeals involving property owned by Local 799, the Realty Corporation, or members of Local 799 given that he was a Lieutenant of the Providence Fire Department, a Providence Central Labor Council Executive Board member, and President of International Association of Firefighters (Local 799) and the Providence Firefighters Realty Corporation (Realty Corporation). As the Treasurer of the URI/NEA/PSA, the petitioner is a business associate of the members of that local bargaining unit.

The Ethics Commission has advised public officials who are union members that they may participate in negotiations in their public capacity with that union, provided that it is a different local. For example, in Advisory Opinion 96-92, a member of Rhode Island Laborers' Local 1215 who served as the Chairperson of the Westerly Housing Authority Board of Commissions that he could participate in the consideration of a contract with Rhode Island Laborers' Local 1217 notwithstanding the fact that he was a member of a different local of the same union since he was not a business associate of Local 1217. See also A.O. 96-60 (advising a member of the Narragansett Personnel Board of Appeal that she could participate in grievances of employees represented by Local 1033 even though she was a member of that union since she was not a union official and that any benefits she received would not be affected by any decision of the Narragansett Personnel Board); and A.O. 99-36 (concluding that a North Providence School Committee member may participate in negotiations since he is a member of the NEA in another district).

In this matter, the petitioner represents that as a Treasurer of the URI/NEA/PSA, she will not be serving in an executive position with the umbrella organization. Additionally, the teachers in South Kingstown are members of a different local of the NEA. Therefore, based on the past opinions of the Commission and the Code of Ethics, the petitioner may participate in contract negotiations with the NEA as a South Kingstown School Committee member.

One final note. While this advisory opinion is final the Ethics Commission advises the petitioner that within the next few months it will consider many of the issues addressed in this opinion at one or more public hearings. Depending on the information developed through those hearings the Commission may (or may not) revisit some or all of this advisory opinion. Obviously this petitioner will be given notice of any public hearings(s) related to these issues.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-36
98-156
98-44
97-91
96-60

Keywords:

Unions/Bargaining Unit