Advisory Opinion No. 99-4

Re: Peter Voccio

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a Johnston School Committee member, a municipal elected position, requests an advisory opinion as to (1) whether he may participate in negotiations with the non-certified union that represents, for instance, teachers’ aides, clerks and custodial personnel, to develop a new contract given that his spouse is a clerk within the non-certified union and (2) whether he may vote on the contract as a member of the Johnston School Committee.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, a Johnston School Committee member, a municipal elected position, may vote on matters relating to the non-certified contracts as a member of the School Committee provided that his spouse, a clerk in the school system, is not affected individually by the contract, except as a member of the entire class of full-time non-certified union members in the system. The petitioner also may participate in contract negotiations provided that it is not reasonably foreseeable that terms of the contract to be considered could affect his spouse individually, again, except as a member of the entire class of full-time non-certified union members. This opinion is based on and limited by Section 7(b) of the Code which provides that the petitioner may participate in actions as a public official so long as they do not affect him or his family to any greater extent than any other similarly situated member of a significant and definable class.

Here, the relevant class is the 140 members of the non-certified bargaining unit, made up of clerks, teachers’ aides, bus monitors, and custodial and maintenance personnel. The petitioner represents that the contract provides all members of the union with the same benefits and does not exclude any particular group except employees working less than 20 hours per week from certain benefits. Additionally, the petitioner represents that there is a possibility that the new contract would include a provision requiring that new employees co-pay 20% of the Blue Cross benefit.

The Ethics Commission has concluded in past advisory opinions that School Committee members with family members in the school system could participate in negotiations and voting on the contract so long as the family members were part of a significant and definable class; for example, all of the teachers in a school system. Correspondingly, the Commission has concluded that School Committee members with family members in the school system may not participate in negotiations or voting when a matter concerning a family member's subset of teachers or employees (e.g., nurses or teachers aides) or the family member individually came before them, particularly where the class was not large. See A.O. 98-32, A.O. 97-65 and A.O. 95-23.

Here,the petitioner may participate in negotiations and voting with regard to the non-certified union as it is a significant and definable class, so long as the members of that class are affected by the contract equally. The fact that the School Committee may consider requiring new employees to pay a portion of the Blue Cross benefits does not raise additional concerns for the petitioner since his spouse has been employed by the School Department for 15 years. In those situations requiring recusal, the petitioner should follow the dictates of Section 6 of the Code and complete a recusal form, filing a copy with the Ethics Commission.

(Note that the issue of whether the class exception should apply to school committee/family member issues has been discussed at various junctures over the years by the Commission. Additionally, whether there should be more restrictions for negotiating contracts since one does not know at the outset whether or to what extent all the persons subject to the contract will be treated the same has been in issue in this and in other contexts. See A.O. 92-53 (concluding that a Tiverton School Committee member could not participate in negotiations of the new teachers' contract because his spouse is a teacher covered by that contract). See also various opinions issues to legislators finding that they could not participate in negotiations related to pension benefits for state workers and teachers since they had an interest and because the class exception could not be applied because of the tentative nature of which groups would be significant and definable during the negotiations. A.O. 95-54, A.O. 95-55, A.O. 95-56, A.O. 95-63, A.O. 95-64, A.O. 95-69, A.O. 95-70, A.O. 95-75.)

Code Citations:

36-14-5(a)
36-14-5(d)
36-14-7(a)
36-14-7(b)
36-14-5005

Related Advisory Opinions:

98-130
98-32
97-118
97-86
97-65
97-52
95-54
95-55
95-63
95-64
95-69
95-70
95-75
95-23
94-44
94-29
94-27
92-53

Keywords:

Class exception
Contracts
Family: public employment
Union/Bargaining unit