Advisory Opinion No. 98-132

Re: Pascoag Fire District


The Petitioner, Counsel to the Pascoag Fire District, requests an advisory opinion of behalf of three brothers who intend to run for seats on the seven member Board of Utility Commissioners, municipal elected positions, as to whether two or more or them may serve as members of the Board at the same time.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the three brothers from serving simultaneously on the Board of Utility Commissioners for the District. While prohibitions regarding nepotism are an important part of the Code of Ethics, no existing statutes or regulations would prohibit the three brothers from serving on the same Board at the same time absent some showing that one brother’s service inherently or unavoidably would affect the interests of another brother, which is not the case here. See e.g. General Commission Advisory No. 1; A.O. 98-115.

The Pascoag Fire District, a quasi-municipal entity created by Legislative Act, provides fire protection and water service and operates an electrical distribution system within the Town of Burrillville. The District is governed by a volunteer seven-member Board of Utility Commissioners and a volunteer three-member Board of Fire Commissioners elected by qualified rate and taxpayers.

Under the District's bylaws, the Board of Fire Commissioners is responsible for overseeing the operation of the fire protection services. The Board of Utility Commissioners, however, exercises final fiscal control as to all aspects of the District. Currently, one of the interested brothers serves on the Board of Utility Commissioners and another brother serves on the Board of Fire Commissioners. In the next election, however, these two brothers and another brother plan to run for seats on the Board of Utility Commissioners.

The Code of Ethics provides that a public official or employee shall not have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in any employment or transaction which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest. A substantial conflict of interest occurs if the official or employee has reason to believe or expect that he or any family member will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss by reason of his official activity. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 7(a). Also, a public official or employee may not use his public position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for himself or any member of his immediate family. R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d).

As to whether the three brothers may serve simultaneously on the Board of Utility Commissioners, there is no provision in the Code of Ethics that would prohibit such service. Since each brother must be elected independently by the qualified electorate, there is no evidence that one brother could participate or improperly assist another brother in obtaining a position on this Board and, accordingly, the provisions of R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a) and 5(d) are not implicated. Cf. A.O. 96-45 (advising two brothers that they could simultaneously serve on the Sewer Commission and the Town Council in the same Town since they were not involved in obtaining their sibling's position). However, if elected, the brothers are reminded that they may not participate in any matter that would affect the financial interests of another brother.

Also, the Petitioner is advised that this opinion solely addresses whether the Code of Ethics prohibits the three brothers from serving on the Board of Utility Commissioners. This opinion does not address whether the District's bylaws or any other statutes, rulings or policies, specifically from the State Board of Elections or the Attorney General's Office, prohibits such simultaneous service.

Code Citations:



Related Advisory Opinions: