Advisory Opinion No.2001-66

Re: William L. Bernstein, Legal Counsel to Pascoag Fire District


The petitioner, Legal Counsel to the Pascoag Utility District, a regional entity, requests an advisory opinion as to whether a State Representative, a state elected position, may seek elective office as a member of the Pascoag Utility District Board of Commissioners, for which he would receive a $25.00 stipend.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit a State Representative, a state elected position, from seeking elective office as a member of the Pascoag Utility District Board of Commissioners, a regional elected position, while serving as a member of the General Assembly since the respective positions are separate and independent of each other. If elected, however, the individual must recuse himself from the General Assembly’s consideration of matters directly affecting the Utility District.

Under the Code of Ethics, a public official may not participate in any matter in which he has an interest, financial or otherwise, 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), 36-14-7(a). A public official will have an interest in substantial conflict with his 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, or a business associate. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(b) further provides that he may not accept other employment which would impair his independence of judgement or require him to disclose confidential information acquired in the course of his official duties. Finally, the Code prohibits him from using his public position or confidential information received through his position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for himself, a family member, or business associate. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d).

Sections 5(a) and 5(d) of the Code of Ethics do not create an absolute bar to simultaneous service as an elected member of both the General Assembly and the Pascoag Utility District Board of Commissioners. 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. Here, the Commission concludes that simultaneous service in both positions would not present an inherent conflict of interest under the Code of Ethics. It is unlikely that an individual’s involvement with the District Board of Commissioners would impact on his responsibilities as a State Representative, and vice versa, given the different spheres of responsibilities that fall to those respective positions. In the event that such matters would arise, however, the affected public official would be required to recuse from participation and vote. Notice of recusal should be filed with the General Assembly and the Ethics Commission in accordance with R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-6.

Finally, this opinion solely addresses whether the Code of Ethics prohibits an individual from simultaneously holding these respective positions. This opinion does not, and cannot, address whether any other statutes, rulings or policies, specifically from the State Board of Elections or the Attorney General's Office, prohibit such simultaneous service. The Ethics Commission does not exercise jurisdiction over those statutes and, therefore, is not empowered to issue advisory opinions addressing or interpreting their effect.

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Code jurisdiction

Dual public roles