The Ethics of Abstention

We all remember our parents’ golden rule for social occasions, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t saying anything at all.” When serving as a member of a municipal board, there are times when local officials are ethically required to say nothing at all. In other words, the official must abstain from discussion, deliberation, and voting on a matter before the board.

When must a local official abstain?

Wisconsin’s basic ethical mandate for local public officials is that they may not use their public position or office to obtain financial gain or anything of substantial value for the private benefit of themselves, their immediate family, or an organization with which they are associated. While seemingly straight forward, like many things legal, the devil is in the details.

What does it mean to obtain something of “substantial value”? Anything of substantial value can mean money, property, favors, services, or other items that have more than an inconsequential or token value. One way to judge the value is by thinking what the object, service, favor, or item would cost in an arm’s length transaction, rather than what the cost is to the donor. Has or will the official receive a great deal because of their place on the board or potential vote? To paraphrase Wisconsin Towns Association Attorney Lee Turonie, a good rule of thumb is, if you would want it, then you can’t have it. And if you would receive a benefit from a vote you might take as an elected official, you should abstain.

Another point of possible ambiguity is when does an official’s association with another organization require them to abstain? Associated organizations can be charities, sports teams, social clubs, or even your place of employment. However, “associated” has a higher bar than just mere involvement. Officials must abstain in matters involving an organization where the official is a leader or director of the group. For instance, if the official is the president of the local women’s club, she must abstain from a vote on whether the club may use the town hall. Alternatively, if the official is just a member of the women’s club, she does not have to abstain. Similarly, if a matter comes before the board involving a business in which an official is an owner, officer, or director, he must abstain. However, if the official is merely an employee he may not need to abstain unless he will have a direct financial interest in the board’s decision.

Nonetheless, even if you would receive no obvious direct benefit, your involvement in an organization may still create a situation where you should abstain. If you would cast your vote a certain way because of your involvement in the women’s club, or your status as an employee, rather than voting in the best interest of your municipality, you should abstain.

Additionally, an official may be required to abstain during matters involving their “immediate family.” An official must abstain in matters involving their spouse or minor children. However, an official is not always required to abstain from matters involving their relatives by marriage, lineal descent, or adoption. In matters dealing with these relatives, officials need only abstain if the official provides more than one half of the financial support to the relative, or conversely, the relative provides more than one half of the official’s financial support.

In addition to Wisconsin’s statewide ethical rules for local public officials, your own local ordinances, rules, and policies may impose additional restrictions in which an official must abstain. Always check your municipality’s policies and ordinances when there is even a hint of a conflict.

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board has published a number of guidelines and opinions on conflicts of interest, and their website (http://www.gab.wi.gov) is an excellent resource for general information. If you have specific questions regarding compliance with these laws, you should contact your municipal attorney.

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