Advisory Opinion No. 2001-72

Re: Steven T. Hartford, Esq.


The Westerly Town Solicitor requests an advisory opinion on behalf of members of the Town Council, municipal elected positions, as to whether they may participate in the Council’s consideration of a matter involving an officer in the local Democratic Town Committee, given that members are (1) officers; (2) members; and/or (3) endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that Westerly Town Councilors, municipal elected positions, who are officers in the local Democratic Town Committee may not participate in the Council’s consideration of a matter involving a fellow officer in the Committee, who is their business associate under the Code of Ethics. However, those Councilors who merely are members of and/or were endorsed by the Committee in the last election may participate in the Council’s consideration of the matter without running afoul of the Code.

Under the Code of Ethics, a public official may not participate in any matter in which he or she has an interest, financial or otherwise, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his or 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 his or her official duties if he or she has 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). A business associate is defined as "a person joined together with another person to achieve a common financial objective." See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-2(3).

The Code of Ethics does not bar members of the Westerly Town Council from belonging to political committees, or any other organization. The Code does not address political affiliations and alliances. However, it does impose restrictions on public officials depending on the nature of their involvement in activities and organizations beyond their public duties. Provisions of the Code of Ethics prohibit public officials from acting to benefit financially themselves, family members and business associates. See, e.g., R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), (b), (c) and (d).

The Commission consistently has found that, while mere membership in an organization does not create a "business associate" relationship as defined in the Code of Ethics, such a relationship does exist for those in leadership positions since they direct the financial objectives of the organization. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 5(d), 5(f). Also A.O. 99-33 (finding that the Code of Ethics prohibits a Johnston Town Councilor from participating as a Personnel Board of Appeals member regarding the dismissal of the Public Works Director given that he serves with the Director on the Democratic Town Committee). Therefore, the Commission concludes that those Councilors who serve as officers in the Democratic Town Committee must recuse from participation and/or vote when the Council considers a matter involving a fellow officer. Notice of recusal should be filed with the Town of Westerly and the Ethics Commission in accordance with R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-6.

The members of the Town Council are joined together with those from whom they received an endorsement for a shared political objective, not a common financial objective. In and of themselves, shared political affiliations and objectives are not relevant for purposes of the Code of Ethics. Under existing law, the fact that a public official received an endorsement from the Town Committee and/or is a member of same and now is being asked to participate in a matter involving a Committee officer does not create an impermissible conflict of interest. See A.O. 99-32 (concluding that Johnston Town Councilors may sit as the Personnel Board of Appeals and participate in an appeal regarding the dismissal of the Public Works Director, notwithstanding the fact that the Director is the Chairperson of the Democratic Town Committee, which endorsed four of the Council’s five members in the most recent elections). Accordingly, Westerly Town Councilors who are members of and/or who received endorsements from the local Democratic Town Committee may participate in the Council’s consideration of a matter involving an officer of the Democratic Town Committee, absent any other relationship with that individual that would implicate provisions of the Code of Ethics.

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Business associates

Political activity