Whether County funds may be used to pay the cost of County Council members' dinners at meetings, scheduled prior to County Council's sessions and open to the public, without violating the New Castle County Ethics Code.
Yes. Use of County funds to pay the cost of such dinner meetings would not violate the Ethics Code.
Prior to County Council's bi-monthly sessions, Council customarily meets for dinner at one of various nearby restaurants. The purpose of these dinner meetings is to discuss agenda items for that evening's session. Council's attorney usually attends. Notice of these meetings is posted and they are open to the public.
Code or Prior Opinion:
The question posed is whether the cost of the members' dinners may be paid with County funds without violating the New Castle County Ethics Code. In responding to this question, the Commission has examined the following provisions of the Code:
Conflict of Interest
County officials are prohibited from engaging in conduct which constitutes a "conflict of interest."1 "Conflict of interest" is defined as "[u]se by a county official [ ] of the authority of his office . . . for [his or her] private pecuniary benefit.2
Payment with County funds for the cost of dinner meetings, which are open to the public and at which Council business is conducted, does not constitute "private pecuniary benefit" to the Council member.
Appearance of Impropriety
County officials are required to avoid "an appearance of impropriety", defined here as "conduct of [a member of Council] which does not constitute a conflict of interest but which undermines public confidence in the impartiality of [members of Council] by creating an appearance that the decisions or actions of [the members or Council] are influenced by factors other than the merits.3
There is no decision or action of Council or its members which is tainted by the use of County funds to pay for meals consumed at dinner meetings where County business is conducted. Thus, there is no possible appearance of impropriety.
Use of County Funds or Property
In closing, the Commission notes that the Ethics Code does not address use of County funds or property, - except of course to the extent use of County funds or property creates a conflict of interest or an appearance of impropriety. Thus, issues pertaining solely to use of County funds or property (with the exception noted) are not within the Commission's jurisdiction.4
Whether and the extent to which County funds may be used to cover expenses, such as meals, incurred in the performance of County business is a matter of internal fiscal management.
L. Susan Faw, Ethics Counsel
January 6, 1995
1 Section 2-30.2(a).
2 Section 2-30.1. Definitions.
3 Sections 2-30.2(g) and 2-30.1. Definitions.
4See Advisory Opinion 94-03 (commenting that since the Ethics Code does not address use by County officials or employees of County property or time, it therefore does not require a County employee participating in a seminar organized by an outside company to use vacation time for time spent at the seminar).