Advisory Opinion No. 2002-4

Re: Ms. Margaret L. Dudley

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a Burrillville Budget Board member, a municipal appointed position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether she may participate in the Town’s budgetary process relating to the Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library, where she is an unpaid volunteer.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, a Burrillville Budget Board member, a municipal appointed position, may participate in the Town’s budgetary process relating to the Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library given that, as an unpaid volunteer, she is not a business associate of the library.

Under the Code of Ethics, the petitioner, as a member of the Burrillville Budget Board, may not participate in any matter in which she 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 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, a business associate, an employer, or any business which the public official represents. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). Also, a public official may not use her public position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for herself, her family or business associates. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d). Business associates are defined as individuals or entities joined together to "achieve a common financial objective." R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-2(3).

The petitioner represents that the Town of Burrillville Budget Board reviews budget requests submitted by all departments and organizations that wish to receive funds from the Town, including the Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library. The Budget Board then makes advisory budget recommendations to the Town Manager, who prepares a budget for presentation to the Town Council. The petitioner advises that she volunteers at the library, collating and organizing materials regarding the history of the Town of Burrillville. She indicates that she receives no compensation or preferential treatment for her volunteer work.

Past advisory opinions have addressed similar fact patterns. In Advisory Opinion 96-54, the Commission concluded that Town of Westerly Zoning Board members who were also members of the YMCA could participate in matters concerning rezoning for the YMCA. Such opinion was based upon the fact that mere membership, without the ability to affect the YMCA’s financial objectives, did not rise to the level of a “business association” requiring recusal. Similarly, in Advisory Opinion 95-59, a Smithfield School Committee member was permitted to vote to allow an organization to use school facilities, notwithstanding the member’s association with that organization, provided the member was not deemed a “business associate” of the organization due to an ability to affect the organization’s financial objectives. Compare A.O. 97-13 (wherein a South Kingstown Recreation Commission member was required to recuse from participating in any matters involving the South Kingstown Little League given his position as the Little League’s volunteer Vice-President); See also A.O. 96-35 (finding that a North Kingstown School Committee member may serve as volunteer baseball coach for School Department, but must recuse when matters involving the baseball program come before the School Committee).

Here, the petitioner receives no compensation for her volunteer services on behalf of the Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library. As such, no business association exists between the petitioner and the library under the Code of Ethics. Accordingly, the Commission concludes that the petitioner may participate and/or vote in the Burrillville Budget Board’s review of funding requests submitted by the library.

Code Citations:

36-14-2(3)
36-14-5(a)
36-14-5(d)
36-14-7(a)

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-57
98-91
97-13
96-54
96-35
95-59
89-23

Keywords:

Budgets
Business associate