Advisory Opinion No. 99-32

Re: Johnston Town Council Members

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioners, Johnston Town Councilors, municipal elected positions, request an advisory opinion as to whether the Town Council sitting as the Personnel Board of Appeals may participate in an appeal regarding the dismissal of the Public Works Director, who also is the Chairperson of the Democratic Town Committee, given that four out of five members were endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee in the most recent municipal elections.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioners, Johnston Town Councilors, municipal elected positions, may sit as the Personnel Board of Appeals and participate in an appeal regarding the dismissal of the Public Works Director, notwithstanding the fact that the Public Works Director is the Chairperson of the Democratic Town Committee, which endorsed four of the Town Council’s five members in the most recent municipal elections.

Under the Code of Ethics, the petitioners, as Town Councilors, may not participate in any matter in which he/she has an interest, financial or otherwise, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his/her duties in the public interest. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 36-14-7(a). An official will have an interest in substantial conflict with his official duties if he/she has a reason to believe or expect that a "direct monetary gain" or a "direct monetary loss" will accrue, by virtue of the public official's activity, to the official, a family member, a business associate, an employer, or any business which the public official represents. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). A business associate is defined as "a person joined together with another person to achieve a common financial objective." See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-2(3).

Here, four of the Councilors received the endorsement of the Town Democratic Committee in the most recent municipal elections. Mr. Fred Iafrate, Jr. was recently dismissed as Director of Public Works for the Town of Johnston. Mr. Iafrate is also the Chairperson of the Democratic Town Committee. Mr. Iafrate is appealing his dismissal to the Town Council sitting as Personnel Board of Appeals pursuant to the Johnston Town Charter.

Political affiliations and alliances are not addressed in the Code of Ethics. Therefore, under existing law, the fact that public officials received an endorsement from the Democratic Town Committee and are now being asked to take public action involving the Chair of that Committee does not create an impermissible conflict of interest. The members of the Town Council are joined together with those from who they received the endorsement for a shared political objective, not a common financial objective. In and of themselves, shared political affiliations and objectives are not relevant for purposes of the Code of Ethics. Therefore, the Johnston Town Council members who received endorsements from the Johnston Democratic Town Committee may participate in an appeal concerning the Chairperson of the Johnston Democratic Town Committee, absent any other relationship with that individual that would implicate provisions of the Code of Ethics.

Code Citations:

36-14-2(3)
36-14-5(a)
36-14-7(a)

Related Advisory Opinions:

94-3
95-51
96-78
97-80
98-42
98-107
98-147

Keywords:

Business associates
Political activity