Advisory Opinion No. 2006-20

Advisory Opinion No. 2006-20

Re: Brian D. Ballou


The petitioner, Superintendent of Communications for the Town of South Kingstown, a municipal employee position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether a conflict of interests exists if he conducts training seminars for a fee within the state regarding the Rhode Island State Fire Safety Code.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the petitioner, Superintendent of Communications for the Town of South Kingstown, a municipal employee position, from conducting training seminars for a fee within the state regarding the Rhode Island State Fire Safety Code.

The petitioner informs that he is presently employed by the Town of South Kingstown as the Superintendent of Communications.  The petitioner states that he works for South Kingstown’s Communications Department and was hired by the Town Manager.  He relates that his duties include performing plan reviews submitted by contractors for fire alarm systems that are to be installed in buildings located in the Town.  He informs that he reviews plans to determine whether or not they comply with the Rhode Island State Fire Safety Code (“Safety Code”).  He represents that he reviews plans only to determine whether they are in compliance with the Safety Code as state law prohibits municipalities from enacting ordinances that are more stringent than the Safety Code.

The petitioner states that he is certified by the Rhode Island State Fire Marshall’s Office as the local representative of the Fire Marshall’s Office.  In this capacity, he informs that he receives training on the Safety Code and reports non-complying contractors to the Fire Marshall’s Office, which is solely responsible for formally enforcing the Safety Code and imposing fines for non-compliance.  He represents that non-compliance in South Kingstown is rare as the plans he reviews are mostly for new construction projects and that such contractors are eager to comply with the Safety Code so that they can move forward in their work.  He informs that the Fire Marshall’s Office is not involved in the review of the plans he evaluates.  The petitioner informs that his interaction with the Fire Marshall’s Office is limited to receiving training on the Safety Code and informing them of non-complying sites.

As Superintendent, the petitioner informs that he works with several assistants who also review plans, but that he alone is responsible for approving all plans submitted to the South Kingstown Communications Department.  He notes that if a plan does not meet the Safety Code, the reason given is a specific section of the Safety Code.  As part of the plan review process, the petitioner represents that he is in daily contact with electricians, architects, engineers, and alarm companies regarding compliance issues relating to fire alarm system installations.  After reviewing a plan, the petitioner relates that he and his staff visit the site to test whether the plan is met.  If the plan is not met, the petitioner informs the contractor who generally takes steps to remedy the site.  If a plan continues not to comply, the petitioner reports the site to the Fire Marshall’s Office who enforces the Safety Code. 

Prior to working as the Superintendent, the petitioner informs that he worked as a sales engineer for ten years for two major fire alarm distributors designing and selling fire alarm systems.  Through this work and his present employment, the petitioner represents that he gained specialized knowledge of fire alarm systems and the Rhode Island Fire Safety Code.  He represents that he is recognized for this knowledge and that he presently provides free training to the Rhode Island Fire Marshall’s Office on the Safety Code.

In addition to his public employment, the petitioner relates that he owns Ballou Electrical Services, LLC (“BES”), located in Wakefield, Rhode Island.  He represents that he is the only employee of BES and is its Managing Director.  He informs that through BES he works as a licensed master electrician, providing general electrical contracting services throughout the state, as well as fire alarm training.  He represents that he would like to conduct training seminars in the state through BES on the Safety Code.  Initially, he informs that he wishes to teach one four-hour seminar on updates and amendments to the Safety Code.  If there is sufficient interest in such a seminar, the petitioner informs that he will also offer a four-hour seminar on how to install fire alarm systems in compliance with the Safety Code through hands-on demonstrations and training on the technical aspects of the Safety Code.  The petitioner relates that he would only consider conducting these two seminars each year.    

At these seminars, the petitioner states that he will disclose that his presentation does not reflect the view of the Town of South Kingstown.  He informs that he will neither provide information about how South Kingstown Communications Department conducts plan reviews nor share any confidential information.  Furthermore, he relates that he will neither directly solicit anyone who comes before him in his official capacity to attend his seminars nor use his public position to promote his seminars.  The petitioner relates that he will advertise his seminars outside of his work hours for the Town through broad-based advertising.  Specifically, he informs that he will send out mass mailings to general lists of individuals who may be interested in the seminars, including all Rhode Island licensed electricians and engineers.      

The petitioner represents that he will conduct these seminars in the state and that attendance will be open to the public for a fee.  He informs that he will require attendees to pre-register and pre-pay for the seminars.  The petitioner states that attendees will likely include electricians, alarm technicians, and other parties that engage in the installation of fire systems in Rhode Island.  He states that he is aware that there is a need for such training in Rhode Island as he presently serves as the President of the Fire Communication Officers Association of Rhode Island, a group of fire officials and commercial entities who share an interest in the advancement of fire safety through fire communications and alarms.  Given the small size of the state, the petitioner informs that it is possible that attendees to one of his seminars may submit plans to the Communications Department that he will review and approve.  The petitioner requests this opinion to determine whether this situation would present a conflict of interest under the Code of Ethics.  He represents that he will provide the Town Manager with a list of the names of all the individuals who pay to attend his seminars.

Under the Code of Ethics, the petitioner 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 and employment in the public interest. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(a).  The petitioner will have an interest in substantial conflict with his official duties if he has reason to believe or expect that a “direct monetary gain” or a “direct monetary loss” will accrue, by virtue of his official activity, to himself, a family member, a business associate, an employer, or any business which he represents.  See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a).  The Code provides that a conflict exists when it is “reasonably foreseeable” that the petitioner, a family member, employer, or business associate will be financially impacted by virtue of the petitioner’s official activities.  Commission Regulation 36-14-7001.  The Code of Ethics defines as business association as “a person joined together with another person to achieve a common financial objective.”  R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-2(3). 

Section 5(b) of the Code of Ethics prohibits the petitioner from accepting other employment which will impair his independence of judgment as to his official duties or would require him to disclose confidential information acquired by him in the course of his official duties.  R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(b).  The Code of Ethics also prohibits the petitioner from willfully and knowingly disclosing or using for pecuniary gain confidential information acquired by him in the course of and by reason of his official duties.  R.I. Gen. Laws §36-14-5(c).  The petitioner is further prohibited 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 business associate, or a family member.  R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d). 

Here, a conflict of interest does not exist as the petitioner does not have a business association with the attendees of his seminars.  He is not jointed together with persons attending his seminars in such a way as “to achieve a common financial objective.”  R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-2(3).   The petitioner’s seminars are limited to four-hour educational presentations on the Safety Code that do not include any consulting services or create ongoing business relationships.  The Commission has previously opined that a municipal electrical inspector, who was also a member of a state agency, could teach specialized continuing educational classes mandated for electricians and journeymen in the State so long as the petitioner’s Board did not oversee or administer these educational classes.  See, e.g., A.O. 96-94. Here, the seminars at issue are not mandatory classes and the Communications Department has no involvement in them whatsoever, which petitioner represents he will disclose at the seminars.    

The Commission has also given its approval for public officials to accept employment outside of their public position provided that the official’s public duties did not directly relate to his private employment, the official completed such work outside of his normal working hours, and the official did not appear before his own agency.  See, e.g., A.O. 97-108 (opining that a State Building Commissioner may teach a course on the Family Dwelling Code so long as he did so on his own time, without the use of public resources, and the course was not part of a continuing education program mandated by the Building Code Standards Committee).  Here, the petitioner represents that his seminars will regard the Safety Code and not the views or practices of South Kingstown Communications Department, that he will complete such work outside of his normal working hours with the Communications Department, and that he will not appear before the Communications Department when conducting these seminars.  Furthermore, the petitioner informs that he will only conduct broad-based advertising for his seminars through mass mailing and that he will not solicit attendance for the seminars through his public office.

Accordingly, based on the petitioner’s representations, the Commission opines that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit him from teaching these seminars, notwithstanding that the petitioner may review the plans submitted by attendees of his training seminars in his public position.  The petitioner is advised that a more substantive association between the petitioner and attendees of his seminars may create a business association under the Code of Ethics requiring him to recuse from matters before the Communications Department.  If such a circumstance should arise, the petitioner is encouraged to seek further advice from the Commission.  

Code Citations:








Regulation 36-14-5003

Related Advisory Opinions:




Business Associate