Advisory Opinion No. 99-73

Re: Doris Melville

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a member of the Nasonville Fire District Operating Committee, a regional elected position, requests an advisory opinion as to (1) whether she may continue to serve in that capacity given that her spouse has been elected Chief of the Nasonville Volunteer Fire Department; and (2) whether any member of an Operating Committee may have a spouse on a volunteer fire department.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the petitioner, a member of the Nasonville Fire District Operating Committee, a regional elected position, from continuing to serve on the Operating Committee while her spouse is Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department in that District. The petitioner states that she was elected by the voters to a two year term on the Operating Committee last year. The Operating Committee manages the affairs and interests of the Fire District. Recently, her husband was voted in as Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department. While it is a volunteer position, the Chief does receive an allowance. The Chief is present at Operating Committee meetings to present his Report, which consist of fire and rescue calls for the previous month. As stated above, the petitioner must recuse on any matters concerning the Chief's allowance or other matters that could financially impact him. However, that the Chief presents reports to the Committee about Fire Department business, does not, in and of itself, require recusal under the Code of Ethics. When recusing, the petitioner should complete a conflict of interest statement in accordance with Section 6 of the Code.

Under the Code of Ethics, the petitioner is prohibited from taking any official action that is likely to have a direct financial impact on, among others, a family member, or from having an interest which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of her duties in the public interest. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 5(d) and 7(a).

Again, although her spouse’s position is as a volunteer, he does receive an allowance. Therefore, the petitioner should not participate in matters that could financially impact her husband, including participating in the discussion and vote on his stipend. This does not mean that the petitioner may not participate in matters that affect the Fire Department generally, but only those matters that could financially impact her spouse. This same analysis would apply as to any other member of her family who is a member of the fire department. The Commission may only address the second question as it applies to the petitioner. Inasmuch as we have addressed that question here, the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the petitioner from being a member of the Operating Committee while her spouse or any other family member serves as a member of the Volunteer Department. However, recusal is required in circumstances that she can reasonably foresee will result in a financial gain or loss to herself, a family member, or a business associate. Therefore, the petitioner may continue to serve but should recuse on any matters concerning the Chief's allowance or other matters that could financially impact him.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

GCA 1
98-132
97-115
97-49
96-118
96-113
96-109
96-16
95-113

Keywords:

Family: Public Employment
Nepotism