Union Leader Defies Multiple Legal Opinions About Potential Ethics Issues
Sunday, November 25, 2018
But, two different law firms warned the town of South Kingstown that Sarah Markey, who is a union organizer for the National Education Association, will be in near constant conflict as a member of the town’s school committee. She earns more than $166,000 in total compensation annually as an organizer for the union, according to the website unionfacts.com.
NEA represents the majority of the faculty and staff in the South Kingstown schools.
Both the town of South Kingstown’s legal counsel and the South Kingstown school committee’s attorneys flagged the conflict issues in 2017 — when Markey was being considered for appointment to the Board due to a vacancy. In 2018, she ran and was elected, but did not disclose the potential conflict issues.
Markey was the second highest vote-getter in winning a seat on the School Committee.
“The opinion of Attorney [Sara] Rapport [counsel of the school committee] is that the Rhode Island Ethics Commission would most likely find that Ms. Markey would be required, as a matter of law, to recuse herself from all discussions and votes that in any way relate to NEARI and its members. I am in agreement with this conclusion, especially given the [Henry] Boeniger Advisory Opinion which is attached. Nonetheless, a ruling on this matter would have to come directly from the Ethics Commission as legal counsel cannot provide binding advice on behalf of the Ethics Commission,” wrote Michael A. Ursillo, Town Solicitor in South Kingstown in a memo to then-Town Administrator Steve Alfred in October of 2017.
Ursillo’s memo follows a legal opinion filed by the South Kingstown’s school committee’s attorney that stated:
We believe that the Rhode Island Ethics Commission ("Ethics Commission") would likely find that Ms. Markey would be required, as a matter of law, to recuse herself from all discussions and votes that in any way relate to NEARI and its members. This recusal mandate would apply to many if not most matters regularly before the Committee, including without limitation, those pertaining to the Committee's budget, collective bargaining, and the termination/non-renewal and discipline of Committee employees, the majority of whom are represented by NEAR!. Finally, recusal would also likely apply to matters involving curriculum, administrative staffing (personnel supervising NEAR! members), facilities reconfiguration, proposed state legislation, and the development and implementation of Committee policies pertaining to personnel assignment and evaluation.
Markey Dismisses the Legal Opinions
“The legal opinion was ordered by the past School Committee Chair, Roland Benjamin in order to keep me from being appointed. He ultimately lost the election and I won. Voters spoke,” said Markey.
“To your question, being an employee of a union does not bar someone from serving office. A candidate can not seek an advisory. An elected official can seek an advisory about a specific question,” added Markey.
The School Committee’s legal counsel flags a number of critical issues including the depth of the potential conflict, "Ms. Markey would become a member of the very public body charged by law with responsibility over that school department budget, and would be required to discharge various duties pertaining to that budget, i.e., adopting the school budget to submit to the Town Council, adopting changes to the school budget, approving expenditures, and generally having overall care and control of the schools."
The School Committee's attorney wrote, "The Committee's total annual budget is $60,573,360. Salary and benefits for all personnel comprise $48,561,322, or eighty percent (80%) of that annual budget. The salary and benefits paid to employees represented by NEAR! is $40,520,958, or sixty-seven percent (67%) of the Committee's total annual budget. Thus, more than two-thirds of the Committee's budget supports employees represented by NEAR!. It is difficult under these circumstances to imagine a scenario in which NEAR! would not have a direct financial interest in any matter before the Committee that implicates its budget and related fiscal concerns.
Earlier this week, Rhode Island Ethics Commissioner Jason Gramitt, told GoLocal that Markey has not herself yet sought an advisory, weighed on the issue as well.
"Employment by a labor union does not disqualify one from holding elective public office under the Code of Ethics. It is treated like any other private employment so that the public official, while not barred from serving in the elective position, may have to recuse from participation in certain matters that either involve or financially impact his or her private employer," said Gramitt. "But aside from recusing on those issues, the public official is free to participate in other matters that do not involve his or her employer."
On Wednesday, a member of the South Kingstown Town Council raised the issue of how Markey will be able to be impartial when it comes to considering matters including the budget and potential school closures.
Democrat Bryant Da Cruz, who was re-elected to the town council in 2018, said he was approached by Democrat Sarah Markey, who he "considered a friend" when she decided to run for school committee this year.
"I want what’s best for the town. [Markey] is a friend, she asked if I’d support her in her run for school committee, but I said I don’t think I could because her NEA employment would be a conflict," said Da Cruz.
Editor's Note: Da Cruz clarified he was approached by Markey for his support when there was a vacancy in 2017. This story was first published 11/24/18 2:30 AM