Advisory Opinion No. 2000-83

Re: Richard R. Longton

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a Providence fire fighter, a municipal employee position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether he may receive compensation from Local 799, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) for his service on the City of Providence Employees Retirement Board as a Class B representative for the Providence Fire Department, a municipal appointed position.

RESPPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the petitioner, a Providence fire fighter, a municipal employee position, from receiving compensation from Local 799, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) for his service on the City of Providence Employees Retirement Board, a municipal appointed position. Further, he may accept increased compensation for his attendance at Retirement Board meetings, provided that he did not participate in bringing the request for increased compensation before the union.

The petitioner advises that he is a member of Local 799 International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) who also serves on the City of Providence Employees Retirement Board as a Class B representative for the Providence Fire Department. Pursuant to union bylaws, he receives $15.00 for attending each monthly Retirement Board meeting. He represents that the union recently proposed amending its bylaws to increase the Class B representative’s compensation to 10% of a fire fighter’s weekly salary, equivalent to $79.00 per month. The Providence Home Rule Charter, Article XI, Section 1206(4) provides that a municipal officer or employee shall not solicit or receive any compensation for his or her services as an officer or employee of the city, except as otherwise provided by Charter or ordinance.

Under the Code of Ethics, the petitioner may 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. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(a). A substantial conflict of interest occurs if he has reason to believe or expect that he or any family member or business associate, or any business by which he is employed will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss by reason of his official activity. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). Further, he may not use his position or confidential information received through his position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for himself, a business associate, or any business which he represents or by which he is employed. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d).

In General Commission Advisory Opinion No. 6, the Commission clarified the responsibilities of all public officials who are in a position to grant themselves salary increases, or who may have any role in the granting of such increases. The Commission stated that, in general, it would be a violation of the Code of Ethics for a public official to vote on, participate in the discussion of, promote or otherwise have any role in the granting of a raise or increase of benefits to himself of herself. Where a public official takes any action with regard to salary or other benefits of employment which will benefit him or her directly, a probable violation of the Code of Ethics will occur. The Commission referred specifically to Celona v. R.I. Ethics Commission, 544 A.2d 582, wherein the Court stated:

There is no language in the … statute that limits violations to circumstances where a public official renders a decision that results in financial gain. Rather … a conflict exists if the public official has reason to believe or expect that he [or she] *** will derive a direct monetary gain *** by reason of his [or her] official activity.

The Commission consistently has ruled that public officials may not introduce, participate in the discussion of, or vote on compensation and health benefit issues affecting themselves in their current term of office. See A.O. 97-64 (concluding that Code of Ethics does not bar the members of the Pawtuxet River Authority from adopting a clause in their by-laws that would allow members to continue serving as voting representatives beyond the termination dates of their appointments in the absence of a replacement, provided the adopted by-law does not confer an economic benefit on the current members of the Authority); A.O. 93-74 (finding that a Little Compton Town Councilor may not participate and vote on matters concerning health care benefits for various town officials given that some Town Councilors, although not himself, receive health care benefits from the town since he could receive such benefits in the future); A.O. 89-27 (concluding that Little Compton Town Council members may not consider or vote upon increase in stipend received by Councilors if those members voting would directly benefit from it); and A.O. 99-115 (advising members of the Glocester Housing Authority may not receive compensation for their efforts if the members of the Housing Authority themselves take action to provide for or set their own compensation, but allowing another body, i.e. Town Council, to set compensation for the Authority members independent of any action by the Housing Authority members). Even where town councilors have submitted salary increases subject to approval by the electorate, the Commission has found probable violations where the pay raise was submitted by and for currently serving council members. See A.O. 89-32.

The Commission concludes that the petitioner may accept compensation set by the Local 799 for attending Retirement Board meetings, provided that he did not participate in the proposal to increase the remuneration set by union bylaws. In the event that he played any role in bringing the request for increased compensation to the Local 799, he is prohibited from accepting any financial benefit awarded. Finally, the petitioner is advised that this opinion solely addresses whether the Code of Ethics prohibits his receipt of such compensation. This opinion does not, and could not, address whether any other statutes, rulings, charters or policies prohibits said practice. The Ethics Commission does not exercise jurisdiction over those statutes and charters and therefore is not empowered to issue advisory opinions addressing or interpreting their effect. Specifically, this opinion does not address any issues relating to municipal employees engaging in union related duties on public time.

Code Citations:

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

Related Case Law:

Celona v. R.I. Ethics Commission, 544 A.2d 582 (R.I. 1988)

Related Advisory Opinions:

GCA 6
2000-6
99-123
99-115
99-97
98-9
97-130
97-128
97-64
96-21
95-52
93-74
89-32
89-27

Keywords:

Compensation
Union/Bargaining unit