Filing Number: 10-04
Subject: Use of County Resources
Keywords: candidate, communication, constituent, council member, County official, elected official, fundraising, official business, political contribution, solicitation
Decision By: Commissioners: Thomas Collins, Gerald Turkel, Edward Danberg, James Keeley, V. Eugene McCoy, Vincent White
Contact Email: admin@nccethics.org
 
Status: Active

Question:

             An elected official requested guidance about whether he may use County resources to send introductory letters to all new district voters without regard to party affiliation. He is concerned that by directing the letters to registered voters that he is implying that his representation contingent upon representation.

Conclusion:

             The requesting official would not violate the Ethics Code if he uses County resources to send an introductory letter which is non-partisan in nature and contains only the name of the office holder, identification of the office and contact information for the office holder. The reasonable voter would not interpret the letter to imply that the official's representation was contingent upon voter registration.

Facts:

             The sample letter in question is written on County letterhead and its content is restricted to information regarding identity of the office holder, how long he has held that office, and the means to contact the official through County phone numbers. The letterhead also includes the street address of the official's County office. The letter contains no information other than that recited above and there are no attachments or enclosures. The letter is non-partisan in nature and the elected official is not a declared candidate at this time.

Code or Prior Opinion:

Code Provisions
 
            Both County law and the Ethics Code forbid the use of County resources to advance partisan positions. New Castle County Code Section 26.01.019(B) states, in pertinent part:
 
1.     No employee in the classified or unclassified service shall, during regular working hours, take part in the management or affairs of any political party or in any political campaign or perform any service for any political party other than of an incidental nature to the official job description of the employee, except to exercise his or her right as a citizen privately to express his or her opinion and to cast his or her vote.
2.     No employee in the classified or unclassified service shall at any time use or attempt to use his or her position with the County as a means of implementing or promoting the solicitation of any assessment, subscription, contribution or service for any political party.
 
            The conflict of interest rule at New Castle County Code Section 2.03.103(A)(1) prohibits the use of official authority by a County official or employee "for the personal or private benefit of himself or herself, a member of his or her immediate family or a business with which he or she is associated."1 The Ethics Code conduct rule at Section 2.03.104 D prohibits all County employees and County officials from using their "public office to secure unwarranted privileges, private advancement or gain."2
 
Prior Commission Opinions
 
            Advisory Opinion 10-01 a&b, issued February 17, 2010, addressed a question of use of County resources to send introductory letters to voters in a representative district. In that Opinion, the Commission found that the particular letters did not violate the Ethics Code:
 
            The source of the names of the recipients is a non-partisan state agency and the recipients are neither selected on a partisan basis nor by prior contribution to or affiliation with the official. The letters serve to introduce the current office holder to the new voter and provide general information about financial and service resources available in the County. The letters and attachments inform the reader where and how to contact the official and direct the recipient to County maintained links and access numbers and addresses for government employees. The letters make no mention, reference, or link, direct or indirect, to partisan information or fundraising.
. . .
            The requesting officials may use County resources to send the introductory letters and attachments which are non-partisan in nature and contain information deemed helpful to persons in their districts.

Analysis:

             Although the sample letter in this matter appears to contain very little information helpful to the recipient, the reasonable voter would not conclude that the correspondence raised any implication that the official's representation was limited only to those who received the letter but only that it was an introduction to a new group of persons residing in the district.

Finding:

             The requesting official would not violate the Ethics Code if he uses County resources to send an introductory letter which is non-partisan in nature and contains only the name of the office holder, identification of the office and contact information for the office holder. The reasonable voter would not interpret the letter to imply that the official's representation was contingent upon voter registration.
 
            In issuing this Advisory Opinion, the Ethics Commission is applying the New Castle County Code of Ethics, which establishes the minimum level of ethical conduct required of County officials and employees.
 
BY AND FOR THE NEW CASTLE COUNTY ETHICS COMMISSION ON THIS 14th DAY OF APRIL 2010.
 
______________________________
Thomas P. Collins, Chairperson
 
Decision: Unanimous

Footnotes:

1New Castle County Code Section 2.03.103. Prohibitions relating to conflicts of interest, states in pertinent part:
A.     Restrictions on exercise of official authority.
1.     No County employee or official knowingly or willfully shall use the authority of his or her office or employment or any confidential information received through his or her holding County office or employment for the personal or private benefit of himself or herself, a member of his or her immediate family or a business with which he or she is associated. This prohibition does not include an action having a de minimis economic impact or which affects to the same degree a class consisting of the general public or a subclass consisting of an industry, occupation or other group which includes the County official or employee, a member of his or her immediate family or a business with which he or she or a member of his or her immediate family is associated. There will be a rebuttable presumption of a knowing or willful violation of this section if the action benefits the County official or employee, his or her spouse, or his or her dependent children (whether by blood or by law).

2New Castle County Code Section 2.03.104. Code of conduct.
D.      No county employee or County official shall use such public office to secure unwarranted privileges, private advancement or gain.