The conflict of interest law, G.L. c. 268A, covers all municipal officials and employees, whether elected or appointed, paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time. However, two sections of the conflict law apply less restrictively to those part-time or unpaid municipal officials who have been designated as "special municipal employees."


"Special municipal employee" status can be assigned to certain municipal positions by a vote of the board of selectmen, board of aldermen, town council or city council. Several specific municipal positions are automatically designated as "special" under the law. Your position is eligible to be designated as a "special municipal employee" position provided that:



  • you are not paid; or

  • you hold a part-time position which allows you to work at another job during normal working hours; or

  • you were not paid by the city or town for more than 800 working hours (approximately 20 weeks full-time) during the preceding 365 days.


It is the municipal position that is designated as having "special" status, not the individual. Therefore, all employees holding the same office or position must have the same classification as "special municipal employees." For instance, one member of a school committee cannot be classified as a "special" unless all members are similarly classified.


The designation may be made by a formal vote of the board of selectmen, board of aldermen, town council or city council at any time. Votes should be taken individually for each board or position being designated, expressly naming the positions being designated. Once a position is designated as having "special" status, it remains a "special municipal employee" position unless and until the classification is rescinded. A list of all the "special municipal employee" positions should be on file at the town or city clerk's office. This list should also be filed with the Ethics Commission.


Under no circumstances may a mayor, city councilor, town councilor, alderman, or selectman in a town with a population of more than 10,000 be designated as a "special." However, in towns of 10,000 or less, selectmen are automatically considered "special" employees. Other municipal positions in towns with a population of less than 10,000 must still be designated as "special municipal employee" positions by the selectmen.


The Legislature may also designate certain positions to have "special municipal employee" status. For example, board members and part-time employees of local housing and redevelopment authorities are defined by law as "special municipal employees" and do not need to have local authorities approve their designation as "specials." (See G.L. c. 121B, section 7.)


THE CONFLICT LAW IS LESS RESTRICTIVE FOR "SPECIALS"


Only two sections of the conflict of interest law apply less restrictively to "specials", §§ 17 and 20. All other sections of the conflict law that govern regular municipal employees apply to "special municipal employees" in exactly the same way. See the Summary of the Conflict Law for Municipal Managers or the Practical Guide to the Conflict Law for Municipal Employees for information on your responsibilities under the law (these publications are available from the State Ethics Commission). Remember that even if you serve on an unpaid part-time board or commission, you are still considered a regular municipal employee, unless your position has been expressly designated as having "special municipal employee" status.


Section 17 - Acting on Behalf of Others


Section 17 generally prohibits municipal employees from representing a private party before municipal boards or departments. It also prohibits municipal employees from acting as agent (or attorney) for a private party in connection with any matter of direct and substantial interest to their city or town. Finally, it prohibits municipal employees from accepting pay or other compensation in connection with any matter of direct and substantial interest to their municipality.


However, if you are a "special municipal employee," you may:



  • represent private parties before municipal boards other than your own, provided that you have not officially participated in the matter and the matter is not now (and was not within the past year) within your official responsibility;

  • act as agent for private parties in connection with a matter of interest to your city or town, provided that you have not participated in the matters as a municipal official, and that the matter is not (and has not been, during the past year) within your official responsibility; and

  • receive pay or other compensation in connection with matters involving your city or town, provided that you have not officially participated in the matters and they are not (and have not been, within the past year) within your official responsibility.

Example: You are a Conservation Commissioner. The Commission has been given "special municipal employee" status. You are also an engineer in private practice in town.

  • You may be hired as site engineer and represent a private development company at a Planning Board hearing, as long as the hearing does not in any way involve Conservation Commission matter.
  • However, if the hearing is about a wetlands dispute, you could not represent the developer before the Planning Board because the matter is under your official responsibility as Conservation Commissioner.

  • Also, if you prepare site plans, blueprints, structural analyses or other professional documents, you may not allow the developer to submit those materials to the Conservation Commission (or to any other municipal boards, in connection with matters under the Conservation Commission's responsibility).
  • Also, you may not be paid for giving the developer advice about how to get his project approved by the Conservation Commission, or for any other activity related to the Conservation Commission review process.


Note that the prohibition against "acting as agent" covers any type of activity that involves representing someone other than your city or town. Activities which can be considered "acting as agent" include: serving as someone's spokesperson; making phone calls or writing letters; acting as a liaison; affixing professional seals or signing supporting documentation; and participating as an electrician, plumber or other contractor during municipal building inspections. For more information about section 17, request Advisory No. 13: Municipal Employees Acting as Agent from the State Ethics Commission.


Section 20 -- Restrictions on Having an Interest in Contracts with your City or Town


Section 20 generally prohibits municipal employees from having a direct or indirect financial interest in a contract with their city or town. However, there are many exemptions in this section of the law. For instance, a municipal employee may own less than 1% of the stock of a company that does business with the municipality.


Also, a municipal employee may have a financial interest in a contract with a municipal department which is completely independent of the one where he works, provided that the contract has been publicly advertised or competitively bid, and the employee has filed a disclosure of his interest in the contract with the city or town clerk. Note that there are additional requirements for personal services contracts: contact your town counsel or city solicitor or the State Ethics Commission's Legal Division for more information.


However, if you are a "special municipal employee," you have two additional exemptions to section 20:


As a "special municipal employee," you may have a financial interest in a contract with a department which is completely independent of the one where you work, provided that you file a disclosure of your interest in the contract with the city or town clerk (there is no "public notice" or "competitive bid" requirement for this "special municipal employee" exemption).


As a "special municipal employee", you may even have a financial interest in a contract with your own department (or with a department which has overlapping jurisdiction with your department), provided that you file a disclosure of your interest in the contract with the city or town clerk and the board of selectmen, board of aldermen, town council or city council vote to grant you an exemption to section 20.

Example: You are a member of the School Committee, which has been given "special municipal employee" status. You also own a hardware store in town.

  • You may sell light bulbs to the town's Department of Public Works, because Public Works is not under the jurisdiction of the School Committee; however, you must file a disclosure of your interest in the lightbulb sales with the Town Clerk.
  • You also may sell light bulbs to the School Department (which is under the School Committee's jurisdiction), but only if you file a disclosure of your interest in the lightbulb sales with the Town Clerk and the Board of Selectmen vote to exempt your lightbulb sales from the restrictions of section 20.


For more information about restrictions on holding an interest in municipal contracts, contact your city solicitor or town counsel or the Legal Division of the State Ethics Commission.


Section 20 -- Restrictions on Holding Multiple Municipal Positions


Because the restrictions of section 20 also apply to employment contracts, municipal employees are generally prohibited from holding more than one municipal position. However, there are many exemptions to this general prohibition. If you are a municipal employee -- regular or "special", you may:

  • hold any number of unpaid positions, because you do not have a financial interest in any of the positions (however, if you hold even one paid appointed position, you must look for other exemptions);

  • hold any number of elected positions, whether paid or unpaid, because you serve in those positions by virtue of your election, rather than because of an appointment or employment contract (however, if you hold even one paid appointed position, you must look for other exemptions); and

  • in some instances, you may hold more than one paid appointed position, provided that the jobs are in separate departments (which do not have overlapping responsibilities) and all paid jobs have been publicly advertised. However, your board of selectmen, board of aldermen, town council or city council must vote to exempt you from section 20, and there are also other requirements you must meet. For more information, see Advisory No. 7: Multiple Office Holding from the State Ethics Commission, or contact your town counsel or city solicitor or the State Ethics Commission's Legal Division.

  • If you serve in a town with a population of less than 3,500, you may hold more than one position with the town if the board of selectmen formally approves the additional appointments.


If you are a "special municipal employee", you may also:



  • hold any number of other "special municipal employee" positions, provided that the positions are with totally independent departments and you file a disclosure of your financial interest in all the positions with the city or town clerk;

  • hold any number of other "special municipal employee" positions, even if the departments' jurisdictions overlap, provided that you file a disclosure of your financial interest in all the positions with the city or town clerk, and the board of selectmen, board of aldermen, town council or city council vote to exempt you from section 20.

Example: As a Cemetery Commissioner, you are a "special municipal employee."

  • You may also hold "special municipal employee" positions on the Board of Library Trustees and on the Waterways Commission, because the three positions are completely independent of each other. However, you must file a disclosure of your financial interest (e.g., stipends, per diem payments, salary) in the positions with the Town Clerk.


If you wish to hold a "special municipal employee" position with the Department of Public Works (which maintains buildings on the cemetery grounds) or as the town's Tree Warden (who cares for the trees on the cemetery grounds), you must file a disclosure of your financial interest in the positions with the Town Clerk, and the Board of Selectmen must vote to exempt you from section 20.


For more information about holding more than one municipal position, request Advisory No. 7: Multiple Office Holding from the State Ethics Commission, or contact your town counsel or city solicitor or the State Ethics Commission's Legal Division.


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The definition of "special municipal employee" can be found in section 1(n) of the conflict of interest law (G.L. c. 268A). Note that town councils are empowered by G.L. c. 39, section 1 to exercise all duties and powers of boards of aldermen.


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Commission Fact Sheets are prepared and issued by the Public Education Division of the State Ethics Commission. They are intended to provide guidance to public officials and employees concerning practical applications of the conflict law. For further information, contact your town counsel or city solicitor, or the Legal Division of the State Ethics Commission.


ISSUED: May 1987

REVISED: March 1990

REVISED: January 1991

REVISED: August 1992