Conflict of Interest Law Questions and Answers
School Committee members are municipal employees covered by the conflict of interest law (Chapter 268A of the General Laws). All municipal employees, whether elected or appointed, full or part-time, paid or unpaid, must abide by the restrictions of the conflict law.
The purpose of the conflict of interest law is to ensure that your private financial interests and relationships do not conflict with your responsibilities on the School Committee. The law is written broadly to cover situations which even give the appearance of a conflict.
If your School Committee position has been designated as a "special" municipal employee position, two sections of the conflict law, sections 17 and 20, apply less restrictively to you. (All other sections of the conflict law which affect municipal employees apply to special municipal employees in the same way.) Most School Committee member positions are eligible for designation as specials; see the Commission's Explanation of the Law for Special Municipal Employees for information on eligibility and the designation process.
CONFLICT QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Accepting Gifts (Section 3 and Section 23(b)(2)(i))
A text book vendor has recently received the school committee's approval for a contract with the school department. To foster goodwill and say thank you, the vendor offers each of the committee members a gift certificate to a fine restaurant in Boston. May you accept?
- It depends. You may not accept a gift of substantial value ($50 or more), which is given to you because of actions you have taken, or will take, in your town position or because you hold a town position, even if the motivation for the gift is to express gratitude for a job well done or to foster goodwill.
- If the gift certificate is worth $50 or more, you may not accept it. If the gift certificate is valued at less than $50, you may accept it provided it is not intended as a bribe. A bribe, no matter what its value, will violate the law.
The conflict law permits local boards and committees to adopt stricter standards than those in the state law. Many local governments have an outright ban on accepting any gifts to avoid any appearance of conflict or favoritism which may be created by accepting gifts.
Prohibited Actions Affecting Financial Interests (Section 19)
You are a school committee member, and also work for a sports equipment store that has bid on a contract to supply athletic equipment to the schools. May you participate in the school committee decision on the contract?
- No. You may not participate in any matter that affects the financial interest of your employer (whether or not you worked on the matter for your company). You also may not act on a matter that affects your own financial interest or those of your "immediate family" or of a business for which you serve as officer, director, partner or trustee. You must abstain on matters affecting your competitors if the outcome will affect your company.
Immediate family is defined in the law as you and your spouse, and either of your children, parents, brothers and sisters. For example, if your sister is a part owner of the sports equipment store in question, you must abstain when the issue comes before your board. Your sister, as a part owner of the store, has a financial interest in the matter.
There is an exemption available for appointed school committee members:
- If appointed, you may act on a matter affecting your own, your immediate family's or your business' financial interest only if you make a written disclosure to, and receive written permission from, your appointing authority prior to taking any action. If you are elected, this exemption is not available to you.
Another exemption allows you to participate as a school committee member in a matter involving a general school fee that will affect your child, or a child whose parent is one of your immediate family members. A general school fee does not include one that applies only to a single event or to the children of a single family. To comply with this exemption, you must file a written disclosure about the financial interest before acting in the matter. See 930 CMR 6.09.
Appearances of Conflict and Misuse of Official Position (Section 23)
Your cousin, a lawyer, is representing a client before your school committee. May you act as a school committee member in the matter?
- Yes, provided that you publicly disclose the fact that the lawyer is your cousin prior to your taking any action. If you are an appointed school committee member, your disclosure must be made in writing to your appointing authority (whatever board or person appointed you to the committee). If you are elected, your disclosure must be made in writing and filed with the town or city clerk; if you are an elected regional school committee member, file your disclosure with the regional school committee clerk or secretary. These disclosures must be kept available for public inspection. We also suggest that you make a verbal disclosure at a public meeting in which the matter arises. The written disclosure will dispel, by law, the impression of favoritism created when you act on matters affecting relatives (who are outside the definition of "immediate family") or friends.
In addition, you must act objectively and not attempt to obtain any special favors for your cousin because of your relationship. Using your school committee position to secure unwarranted privileges for people always violates the law, regardless of whether you have disclosed your private relationship. See Advisory 05-01 – The Standards of Conduct for more detailed information.
Restrictions "After Hours" (Section 17)
Outside of your school committee position, you are a professional engineer working for a development company. May you represent the development company before the conservation commission concerning a development located in wetlands?
- If you are a regular municipal employee, no. You may not act as the agent or attorney for any private party, including your own company, before municipal boards or agencies. Representing a private company before a town board is acting as that company's agent; it does not matter whether you are paid or not.
- If you are a "special" municipal employee, it depends. You may represent private parties before other municipal boards (not your own) unless it is a matter in which you participated as a school committee member, or a matter which is now, or within the past year, was within your official responsibility as a school committee member. In this example, if the proposed development was coming or had already come before the school committee as a "party in interest" (for example, if the proposed development directly abutted the high school), you may not represent the development company before the conservation commission, whether or not you are a special municipal employee. To emphasize, it is not enough simply to abstain from official action on your own board; if the same matter is before other town boards, you must not act as the representative for a private company before those boards.
You have a child attending school in the district. You would like the school department to provide your child with a special assistant in the classroom. May you talk to school department employees about getting an assistant to help your child while you are on the school committee?
Yes. An exemption to this section of the conflict law permits you to advocate for your child, which means that you can act on behalf of your child in your private capacity as a parent, provided that you follow established procedures, do not seek special consideration for your child because you are on the school committee and you make a disclosure. You may omit identifying information in your disclosure to the extent necessary to protect your child’s legal rights to privacy as a student. However, you may not discuss financial matters related to your child with your subordinates in the absence of other people who would ordinarily participate in accordance with an established decision-making process. See 930 CMR 6.03.
Example: A school committee member whose child attends school in the district participates in a mediation process sponsored by the state Bureau of Special Education Appeals to resolve issues about who will pay for services for the child. Some of the participants in the mediation are the committee member’s subordinates in the school district. The school committee member makes a disclosure of her participation in the process. This complies with the exemption.
Example of What is Not Permitted: A school committee member meets privately with his subordinate, the superintendent of schools, to arrive at financial terms relating to payment for services for the committee member’s child. Ordinarily, other school department members, including the Director of Special Education Services, would participate in such discussions. The committee member makes no disclosure of the meetings. This does not comply with the exemption.
Prohibited Financial Interest in Municipal Contracts & Multiple Jobs (Section 20)
A teacher in one of your local schools has written and published a textbook. The school committee has expressed an interest in purchasing the book for the school department. May the teacher receive royalties from the sale of the book?
- No, unless your municipality's collective bargaining agreement with the teachers provides for additional compensation for extra-curricular activities, including receipt of royalties in connection with the purchase of textbooks by the school committee.
The conflict law generally prohibits municipal employees from having a financial interest in any contract (other than their employment contract) with their municipality. However, the Commission has previously held that the multiple contract restrictions do not apply when an employee's additional services and compensation are included as part of the employee's primary employment contract. Many teachers' collective bargaining agreements include statements regarding teacher participation in extra-curricular activities; thus, if the municipality's contract with the teachers specifically authorizes participation in extra-curricular activities in return for additional compensation, and preparation of educational materials is included within that authorization, the teacher may accept the royalties from the purchase without violating the conflict law.
You want to serve as an elected planning board member. If elected, may you hold positions on both the planning board and school committee?
- It depends. If you are elected in both positions, yes. If both positions are unpaid (whether they are elected or appointed), yes. If the school committee position is appointed and unpaid, and the elected planning board position is unpaid, you may hold both positions.
- If the school committee position is appointed and unpaid, and the elected planning board position is unpaid, you will need an exemption. You can use the exemption for uncompensated positions by filing a written disclosure with your appointing authority for the school committee. See 930 CMR 6.02(3).
- However, if the school committee position is appointed and paid, and the elected planning board position is paid, you will need an exemption in order to hold both positions.
Talk to your school committee counsel about the technical requirements you must meet to hold multiple positions or receive additional compensation, or call the Ethics Commission at (617) 371-9500.
Restrictions After You Leave Government Service (Section 18)
You have resigned as a member of the school committee and now work for a developer who has a project pending before the municipality. May you represent the developer before various municipal boards and agencies?
- It depends:
- You may not represent the developer before a municipal agency concerning a matter in which you participated as a school committee member.
- For one year after you leave the school committee, you may not appear before municipal boards on a matter which was under your official responsibility within the two years before you left the committee.
- You may represent the developer before municipal agencies (including your own) with no "cooling off" period, on a matter you never dealt with and which was never under your official responsibility as a school committee member.
This summary is a brief overview of the conflict of interest law and suggests activities which you, as a school committee member, must avoid. It is not a comprehensive review intended to cover every situation. You should consult with school committee counsel or call the Ethics Commission's Legal Division at (617) 371-9500 for advice about how the law applies to your situation.
If you have a question about your own activities, we urge you to request advice prior to engaging in the activity in question.
If you have questions about others' activities in your area, urge them to use the advisory opinion process. In addition, complaints may be filed with the Commission's Enforcement Division online by using the website, by phone (at the same number listed above), by letter or in person. The identity of complainants is kept confidential.
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Explanations about the conflict of interest law are prepared and issued by the Public Education and Communications Division of the State Ethics Commission. They are intended to provide guidance to public officials and employees concerning practical applications of the conflict law.
ISSUED: October 1988