Advisory Opinion No. 99-123

Re: Geraldine A. Loffredo

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, the Johnston School Committee Chairperson, a municipal elected position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether as a member of the School Committee she and other members (1) may negotiate with the non-certified bargaining unit, the Independent Association of Employees, Local #7 regarding benefits given that members of the School Committee receive the same benefits; (2) may vote on any tentative agreement involving Local 7 in which benefits have been discussed; and (3) may vote on a tentative agreement with Local 7 if the members have recused from discussions regarding benefits.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, the Johnston School Committee Chairperson, a municipal elected position, may not negotiate, consider or vote on benefits for the Independent Association of Employees, Local 7 if, by custom or general application, members of the School Committee receive the same benefits as that bargaining unit. In effect, such a process would result in the School Committee member taking action that directly affects his/her own benefits. The Commission notes that it is incumbent upon the School Committee and/or the City Council to structure a process whereby benefit package decisions regarding the School Committee are independently considered.

Under the Code of Ethics, a member of the School Committee 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). (Substantial conflict is defined as a "direct monetary gain" or a "direct monetary loss" that accrues, by virtue of the public official's activity, to that individual, 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).) Pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d), a member of the Committee also is prohibited from using his/her public position or confidential information received through his/her position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for him/herself.

In its General Advisory No. 6, issued in April 1989, the Commission provided guidance to public officials regarding salary increases. In that opinion, the Commission concluded that a public official would violate the Code of Ethics if the official took any action that affected his or her salary or benefits of employment where the official had reason to believe or expect that he or she would derive a direct monetary gain by reason of the official activity. The Commission recognized that the public official must exercise care "in every situation where the individual's action might eventually lead to financial gain for him or her, a spouse, dependent child, or business associate." See also A.O. 93-74 (opining that the Little Compton Town Council Vice-President may not participate as a public official in any issue involving health care benefits if he has reason to expect that he will derive a benefit by reason of his official activity).

In three related opinions, the Commission has considered the issue of School Committee benefits. In Advisory Opinion 96-34, the Commission concluded that the City of Providence School Board could vote to recommend a contract with teachers that contained a reduction in benefits, but only if the City Council independently reviewed the benefits to be awarded to the School Committee, although the Committee was often awarded the same benefits. The Commission also advised North Providence School Committee members that the Code of Ethics did not prohibit them from receiving a pension benefit through a union contract (municipal employees) with which the School Committee and the school department had no involvement. See A.O. 97-129. Finally, the Commission advised the Pawtucket School Committee that they could not negotiate and/or vote on health benefits for a union contract if their benefits were tied to that contract. See A.O. 99-97. See also A.O. 97-131 (concluding that the Executive Director of the City of Pawtucket Housing Authority, would not violate the Code of Ethics if he is a member of the Laborer's International Union pension plan and also participates in the negotiation of the Laborer's Union contract with the Housing Authority, given that his own salary and pension benefits would not be affected by those negotiations).

In this matter, the Johnston School Committee historically has received the same health benefits as the non-certified bargaining unit, based on a contract for which the members of the School Committee negotiate and vote. There is no evidence that the City Council independently determines what benefits School Committee members receive. Nor is there a relevant ordinance that sets benefits for members of the School Committee. Therefore, the petitioners may not participate in negotiations with the non-certified union regarding benefits, nor may they participate in voting on an agreement with that union that affects benefits unless they do not accept/receive those benefits. It is reasonably foreseeable that such actions would affect them as members of the School Committee.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

GCA-6
99-97
97-129
97-131
96-34
95-52
93-74

Keywords:

Compensation
Negotiations
Union/Bargaining Unit