Advisory Opinion No. 96-117


Re: Mary A. Cunningham


The petitioner, a newly-elected member of the North Kingstown School Committee, elected in November, 1996, to fill the final two years of an unexpired four-year term, requests an advisory opinion as to whether she may participate in the consideration and vote for Chair of the School Committee when her spouse, an elected member of the School Committee since November, 1994, intends to seek election as Chair of the Committee.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, member of the North Kingstown School Committee, a municipal elected position, may participate and vote in the election of the Chair for the committee given that her spouse is a candidate for the position.

The Code of Ethics prohibits public officials from using their public office for private gain or advantage, for themselves as well as for business associates and family members. Typically, questions of conflicts of interest arise when a public official or employees's private interests intersect with his or her public responsibilities. Here the situation involves two spouses, both duly elected representatives of the North Kingstown School Committee, one of whom seeks the public position of Chair of the Committee; elected by the members of the Committee.

As a matter of routine, in City and Town Councils, School Committees, and other public bodies at the state and municipal level, elected and appointed officials participate and vote in elections when they themselves are seeking the Chair of the particular body. Such participation and vote has not been perceived as a conflict of interest, but rather as an exercise of their representative vote on behalf of their constituents regarding a public matter (i.e., the Chair of the body) rather than a private matter. The fact that one's elevation to Chair carries with it additional remuneration, as decided by the voters as part of a statute, charter or ordinance, has not been seen to give rise to a conflict of interest as defined by the Code of Ethics.

Here, the unique situation arises where both a husband and wife are members of the same elected body. The same rationale would allow a spouse to participate. For purposes of the December 2 meeting, at which a vote shall be held as a matter of law, the petitioner may participate and vote with her husband as a candidate for Chair without violating provisions of the Code of Ethics.

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family: public employment