Advisory Opinion No.2003-69

Re: Julie M. Silva


The petitioner, a Mail Ballot Clerk for the City of East Providence Board of Canvassers, a municipal employee position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether she may continue to exercise all of her duties in that position given that her spouse is a potential candidate for a seat on the East Providence City Council in the 2004 election.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, a Mail Ballot Clerk for the City of East Providence Board of Canvassers, a municipal employee position, may continue to serve in that position notwithstanding her spouse’s potential candidacy for a seat on the East Providence City Council provided that the petitioner does not exercise discretionary or decision making authority with respect to the City Council election.

The petitioner represents that she is employed as a Mail Ballot Clerk for the Board of Canvassers in the City of East Providence. In that capacity, she informs that her duties include taking registrations, verifying nomination papers, preparing and receiving mail ballot applications and servicing the public in the office and on the phone. Additionally, she informs that her husband is contemplating running for a seat on the City Council in 2004. She seeks this advisory opinion to determine whether she may continue to perform all of her duties in her current position if her husband were to seek election to the City Council in 2004.

Under the Code of Ethics, a public official 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). A substantial conflict of interest occurs if she has reason to believe or expect that she, any family member or business associate, or any business by which she is employed, will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss by reason of her official activity. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14- 7(a). The official further is prohibited from using her public position or confidential information received through her position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for herself, a business associate or a family member. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d). Further, she may not represent herself or any other person before any state or municipal agency of which she is a member or by which she is employed. R.I. Gen. Law § 36-14-5(e)(1), (2). Section 36-14-5(e)(4) extends these prohibitions for a period of one year after the petitioner has officially severed her position with the agency.

In an analogous advisory opinion, A.O. 2000-75, the Commission opined that a file clerk employed by the City of Cranston in the Board of Canvassers could continue to serve in that position despite the fact that her husband was a candidate for a seat on the Cranston City Council. While the Commission allowed the petitioner to continue to serve, the Commission placed limitations on certain matters in which she participated. There, the petitioner was prohibited from participating in matters in which she exercised any discretionary or decision making authority involving the City Council elections.

Here, because the petitioner herself is not a candidate for office, recusal, rather than disqualification for the position, is an appropriate safeguard under the law. Also, any matters involving her husband’s candidacy that come before the Board of Canvassers would not implicate section 5(e) of the Code, which prohibits appearances by an official or employee before his or her own board or agency. That section’s absolute prohibitions do not extend to appearances by family members.

Additionally, the petitioner makes the representation that her position as Mail Ballot Clerk is ministerial only and does not involve exercising any discretionary authority that could affect the candidacy of her spouse or anyone else. As such, the petitioner would not be in a position to use her position to benefit her spouse. However, since the public responsibilities of the Board of Canvassers include administering an impartial election process, the petitioner should exercise diligence in identifying any actions that she might be asked to take that would involve discretionary authority as to the election process and she should recuse herself from participation on any matters relating to or affecting the candidacy of her spouse and/or other City Council candidates. If, for example, the verification of nomination papers involves any exercise of discretion or decision making, then the petitioner should recuse from such duties as they relate to the City Council candidates. Such participation would constitute a substantial conflict with the discharge of her public duties and/or a use of position for financial gain for a family member. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 36-14-7(a), 36-14-5(d). If and when matters involving her spouse or other City Council candidates, and/or the City Council election in general, come before her in her employment capacity, she should (a) advise the Board, in writing, of the nature of her interest in the matter at issue, and (b) recuse from any participation and/or vote in connection with said matters. Notice of recusal should be filed with both the Board of Canvassers and the Ethics Commission pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws, § 36-14-6.

Code Citations:






Related Advisory Opinions:






Family: public employment


Political activity