Advisory Opinion No. 99-90

Re: P. Suzanne Miller

QUESTION PRESENTED

The Narragansett Town Solicitor requests an advisory opinion on behalf of the petitioner, a Narragansett Town Councilor, a municipal elected position, as to whether she may participate in the Council’s consideration of whether to reimburse a former Council member for legal fees, given that he supported the petitioner’s candidacy and may have distributed her campaign literature.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, a Narragansett Town Councilor, a municipal elected position, may participate and vote in the Council’s consideration of whether to reimburse a former Council member for legal fees, given that they do not have a familial relationship and no business association exists between the parties.

The petitioner advises that the Narragansett Town Council will be considering whether to reimburse a former Council member for legal fees expended in the defense of a Complaint filed against him with the Ethics Commission. She indicates that the individual publicly supported her candidacy for Town Council and may have distributed her campaign literature. She represents that he did not contribute funds to support her candidacy.

Under the Code of Ethics, the petitioner may not participate in any matter in which she has an interest, financial or otherwise, 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), 36-14-7(a). An official will have an interest in substantial conflict with her official duties if 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, no familial or private business relationship exists between the parties which would bar the petitioner from participating and voting on Town Council matters concerning the reimbursement of a former Council member’s legal expenses. The fact that she may take public action involving an individual who publicly supported her candidacy and may have distributed her campaign literature does not create a conflict of interest. Previously, the Commission concluded that a social relationship between a public official and a person appearing before him or her does not, absent some other factor, cause impermissible conflicts within the meaning of the Code of Ethics. See A.O. 92-72 (Middletown Zoning Board member could participate in matter where social relationship but no business relationship exists with applicant provided that the Council member could act in an impartial manner concerning that person’s application). Further, shared political affiliations and objectives, in and of themselves, are not relevant for purposes of the Code.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-40
99-32
99-21
96-62
92-72

Keywords:

Business Associate
Code Jurisdiction
Political Activity