DATE AUTHORIZED: January 11, 1983

 

FACTS

 

You are one of five members of the Worcester Civic Center Commission (WCCC),  an unpaid commission appointed by the Worcester City Manager, subject to approval by the Worcester City Council.  The WCCC governs the operation of the Centrum, the municipally-owned civic center which is used to house large-scale musical and athletic performances.

On October 28, 1982, the WCCC adopted a policy (the policy) governing the distribution of tickets to Centrum events.  Under this policy, certain federal, state and municipal officials were allowed to reserve up to 15 or 20 tickets (depending on their positions) within seven days after the tickets went on sale, by calling a WCCC staff person.[1]  These individuals had to pay for the  tickets in full within the seven-day period, and did not receive any preferential seating.  The policy simply guaranteed them tickets, even for sellout performances, without having to wait in line for them, since the tickets were kept aside from those sold to the public during the seven-day period, and reserved for the officials.

You have indicated that the WCCC voted on December 12, 1982 to terminate the policy pending receipt of an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission (Commission) on whether or not the policy presented a conflict of interest.

 

QUESTION

 

It is permissible under G.L.  c. 268A for the WCCC to give, and for municipal and state officials to receive, ticket reservation privileges not accorded to the general public?

 

ANSWER

No.

 

DISCUSSION

 

Although the Commission does not ordinarily issue advisory opinions on municipal matters, it is doing so in this matter because it has received several inquiries related to the situation you have presented, and both municipal and state officials are involved in the situation.

As a member  of the WCCC, you are a municipal employee, as are  the city councilors, and the  city manager, for purposes of the conflict of interest law.[2]  As such, you are  subject to the code  of conduct contained in §23  of c. 268A, particularly the following:

[No officer or employee of a state, county or municipal agency shall)...

(d)  use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or exemptions for himself or others;

(e)  by his conduct give reasonable basis for the impression  that any person can   improperly  influence or unduly enjoy his favor in the performance of his official duties,  or that  he is unduly affected by the kinship, rank, position or influence of any party or person...

Those who benefit from the reservation policy include the individuals who appoint the members of the WCCC, and the members themselves.  It is apparent that they are receiving the benefit because of their official positions; in fact, the policy confers the benefit according to position rather than name.  Generally, the Commission has closely questioned gratuities distributed according to public position or functions,[3]  since they are often perceived by the public as improper[4] and they diminish public confidence in the impartiality and fairness of government officials; indeed, this concern is at the heart of §§23(d) and (e).

The central issues here are whether the policy is an unwarranted privilege and whether or not there is reasonable basis for the impression that (1) in granting the benefit of the policy, the WCCC is unduly affected by the positions of the recipients; or (2) the recipients unduly enjoy the WCCC's favor; or (3) those receiving the benefits can be improperly influenced by the WCCC; or (4) those receiving the benefits unduly enjoy the WCCC's favor.

The Commission concludes that the policy does grant a benefit which is unwarranted and undue.  This conclusion is based on the fact that it is a gratuity based primarily on position, given by a public entity which is expected to serve the public at large without favoritism.  Under this policy, those who serve the people are treated better than the people themselves.  The Commission considers this favoritism to exceed nominal courtesy in view of the large number of tickets obtainable under the policy, and the obvious desirability (and relative scarceness) of tickets for some events.[5]  For these reasons, the Commission advises the WCCC not to resume the practice.[6]

 

END OF DECISION



[1] The city councilors, civic center commissioners, city manager and local congressman each received up to 20 tickets per event; the local state representatives and senators each received up to 15 tickets per event.  Thus, you are in a potential position of both promulgating this policy and benefiting from it.

 

[2] /G.L. c. 268A, §l(g).

 

[3] See, e.g. In the Matter of George A. Michael, Commission Adjudicatory Docket No. 137, Decision and Order (September 28, 1981) pg. 31; EC-COI-80-28.

 

[4] As you noted in your request for an opinion, local newspapers have taken a very strong stand against the policy of the WCCC, for this very reason.  See Worcester Telegram, November 26, 1982, editorial:  "No Centrum Favoritism."

 

[5] On this point, the Commission points to a recent newspaper article which reported that the 13,500 tickets for a particular concert at the Centrum were sold out in four hours, leaving some 3,500 people seeking tickets; tickets were later being sold by "scalpers" at up to $125 apiece.  Boston Globe, December 12, 1982, page 72.  Such facts may raise questions under c. 268A, section 3, which prohibits a public official from receiving (or anyone from giving) something of substantial value for or because of official acts.  However, because the Commission is unwilling to speculate on the market value of tickets for any particular event, and it already finds that policy to be prohibited under section 23, it does not reach the section 3 issue.

 

[6] The conclusion here applies equally to WCCC members as both givers and recipients of the benefit, and to municipal and state officials who receive the benefit, since all are covered by G.L. c. 268A.