Advisory Opinion No. 2006-14

Advisory Opinion No. 2006-14

Re: Kim Hapgood


The petitioner, an Assistant Harbormaster for the City of Newport, a municipal employee position, requests an advisory opinion regarding whether she may serve on the Newport Waterfront Commission, a municipal appointed position.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, an Assistant Harbormaster for the City of Newport, a municipal employee position, may serve on the Newport Waterfront Commission, a municipal appointed position.

The Petitioner represents that apart from her regular, private employment she is employed part-time during summer evenings and weekends as an Assistant Harbormaster in the City of Newport.  As an Assistant Harbormaster, the petitioner's duties are generally to patrol Newport Harbor to provide assistance and information to boaters, and to enforce boating safety rules and regulations.

The petitioner states that there is currently a vacancy on the Newport Waterfront Commission (NWC), a municipal entity made up of unpaid volunteers that acts as an advisory body to the Council regarding the overall organization of the harbor and related marine affairs.  The petitioner represents that the NWC has no authority, budgetary or otherwise, over the Harbormaster and has no influence on Harbormaster personnel or funding.  The petitioner wishes to apply to the Newport City Council for appointment to the NWC.  She asks whether the Code of Ethics permits her application and, if appointed, her acceptance of the position.

The Code of Ethics provides, inter alia, that a public official may not participate in matters where he or she has a substantial conflict of interest, use his or her office for pecuniary gain, or accept employment that would impair his or her independence of judgment as to his or her official duties. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), (b), (d).  A substantial conflict of interest exists if the public official has reason to believe or expect that he or she, or a business associate, or any business by which the official is employed or represents will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss by reason of his or her official activity.  See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-7(a).

Although there appear to be some similarities between the role of the Newport Harbormaster Department and that of the NWC, in that both relate to Newport Harbor, a substantial conflict of interest is not apparent by the petitioner merely holding positions in both of these entities.   See A.O. 2005-3 (Code of Ethics does not prohibit simultaneous service as a Commissioner of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission and as a member of the Town of East Greenwich Planning Board); (A.O. 99-12 (no conflict of interest would occur if DEM’s Chief of Permitting for the Office of Water Resources accepts appointment as Chairperson of Cranston Planning Commission, despite fact that Planning Commission matters may involve the DEM).

Sections 5(a) and 5(d) of the Code do not create an absolute bar to the petitioner’s simultaneous service as an Assistant Harbormaster and as a member of the NWC.  Rather, those provisions require a matter by matter evaluation and determination as to whether substantial conflicts of interest exist with respect to carrying out the petitioner's official duties in the public interest.

The petitioner represents that the NWC's authority in relation to the Harbormaster's Department is advisory rather than supervisory in nature.  Accordingly, she asserts that there are few if any matters that come before the NWC that could materially benefit or harm the Harbormaster's Department or, more particularly, her seasonal, part-time employment as an Assistant Harbormaster. Nevertheless, the petitioner states that she will recuse out of an abundance of caution if such matters arise, or will seek further advice from the Ethics Commission.  Given all of the petitioner's representations, the Ethics Commission opines that the Code of Ethics permits her to apply for and, if appointed, accept a position on the NWC.  Thereafter, any notices of recusal should be filed with the Ethics Commission in accordance with R.I. Gen. Laws § 35-14-6.

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Dual public roles