Advisory Opinion No. 97-34

Re: Richard H. DeGregorio


The petitioner, Warwick City Councilor, a municipal elected position,, who earns a living as the owner/operator of a business that manufactures signs for retail sale, requests an advisory opinion as to whether he may participate in discussions and/or vote on an ordinance that would allow certain categories of signs to be erected in the City of Warwick without seeking a variance from the Zoning Board.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, Warwick City Councilor, a municipal elected position, may not participate in discussions and/or vote on an ordinance allowing signs to be erected without seeking a variance given his private business interest in signs. The petitioner's vocation is as the owner of Budget Signs, a retail manufacturer of signs located in the City of Warwick. Recently a local sign company advised him that "changeable copy signs" are not allowed to be erected in the City of Warwick without first obtaining approval for a variance from the city's Zoning Board. The Petitioner states that this requirement is burdensome for small businesses.

The Petitioner has "docketed" a change in the city's ordinances that would allow for this category of signs to be erected without obtaining a zoning variance provided that they were incorporated into an existing sign and did not exceed the maximum size allowed. The city's Planning Department does not object to the change which is scheduled to come up for public hearing this month.

The change in ordinance that will be considered by the City Council clearly has the potential to benefit the Petitioner. By eliminating the paperwork and fees related to obtaining a zoning variance the proposed ordinance would make it more feasible for individuals and/or businesses to afford the very product and service that the Petitioner provides. Therefore, pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(a) and (d) the Petitioner has an interest in substantial conflict with his duties and responsibilities in the public interest. Similarly, his vocation as a sign maker constitutes employment that might impair his independence of judgment as to his official duties. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(b). Because of these potential conflicts of interest the Petitioner should not participate in discussions or votes regarding the proposed ordinance except to the extent allowed under the "public forum" exception to the Code's prohibitions. Finally, this advisory opinion relates only to prospective conduct, not to actions that already may have been undertaken.

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business interest