Pecuniary Interest FAQ 4

Besides state statutes or local ethics ordinances, are there any other ethics rules or standards that relate to the ethical conduct of local public officials?

Yes. A general rule of law, according to an old Wisconsin supreme court decision, is that members of a legislative body or municipal board are disqualified to vote on propositions in which they have a direct pecuniary interest adverse to the municipality. Board of Supervisors of Oconto County v. Hall, 47 Wis. 208, 2 N.W. 291 (1879). This rule, which is not set forth in any statute, seems broader than the restrictions in the ethics code for local government officials found in Wis. Stat. sec. 19.59. If the rule extends to legislative decisions, it would, for example, prohibit a city council member who owns a restaurant with a liquor license from voting on a proposed change in the liquor license fees to be charged. However, it is not clear whether the rule applies to legislative and non-legislative actions of a governmental body or board. See 63 Op. Att’y Gen. 545 (1974), citing 133 A.L.R. 1257; 62 C.J.S., MUNICIPAL CORPORATIONS, sec. 402 (rule may not extend to legislative decisions) and McQuillin MUN. CORP., sec. 13.35 (3d ed) (this municipal law treatise does not cite any legislative act exception to the Hall rule). It should also be noted that the Hall rule may have been superceded by the enactment of the state ethics code for local government officials but that question has not yet been decided.

Many municipalities have adopted Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (10th ed.) Officials should be aware that section 45 of those rules provides:

No member should vote on a question in which he has a direct personal or pecuniary interest not common to other members of the organization.
. . .
The rule on abstaining from voting on a question of direct personal interest does not mean that a member should not vote for himself for an office or other position to which members generally are eligible, or should not vote when other members are included with him in a motion.

An earlier version of this rule and the Hall case noted above were cited by the Wisconsin court of appeals in Ballenger v. Door County, 131 Wis. 2d 422, 388 N.W.2d 624 (Ct. App. 1986), where the employee of an entity seeking a rezoning abstained from voting as a county board supervisor on the matter. The court concluded that had the employee-supervisor voted, his vote would have been disqualified.