NORTH SMITHFIELD – Members of the North Smithfield Town Council voted unanimously on Monday, Nov. 14 to hire an independent party to investigate legal complaints against Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski by his former administrative assistant.
William O’Gara of Johnston-based Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara LLC will investigate what led to discrimination charges filed by Donna Rovedo, who currently serves as the town of North Smithfield’s deputy tax assessor.
The vote came following a closed session meeting that included both the current and incoming council members. Former Councilor Douglas Osier and former Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton won’t officially join the board until they take the oath of office in December.
Rovedo, who worked directly with Zwolenski from December of 2020 until she took another role working in the assessment office last March, filed a suit in U.S. District Court last month alleging employment discrimination as a result of what she says was inappropriate conduct by the town leader. She is seeking compensation for damages as a result of violation of the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act, the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
At focus for many in town have been questions regarding councilors’ knowledge of the allegations and concerns about Zwolenski working in the same building as his accuser as the legal process plays out. Interviewed separately and without notice this week, two councilors told NRI NOW that they first learned about the complaint filed with the Human Rights Commission in May at a closed session meeting in August.
“The trust attorney did not notify us until our August meeting,” said Town Council President John Beauregard. “I guess they were hoping to be able to just take care of it. He waited to advise the council.”
NRI NOW broke the story of the complaint last month after learning of the lawsuit, which was filed on Tuesday, Oct. 11.
“We were learning of the alleged details at that point,” Beauregard said.
Asked when she was made aware of the allegations, Council Vice President Kimberly Alves responded, “I think it was August in an executive session that we heard about it.”
Beauregard also addressed questions regarding calls for Zwolenski’s dismissal, noting that the attorney from RI Local Trust who is handling the case advised councilors not to take any action. Town Solicitor David Igliozzi also advised the board that it is not within their purview to dismiss the administrator, Beauregard said.
He noted that the independent investigation authorized this week is a routine requirement in such instances, as the town does not have an official human resource department.
“Then we would take the next step if there is one,” Beauregard said.
Alves also pointed to the action as the council’s first step to address the issue.
“We’re doing the investigation to see what transpired,” she said.
Beauregard said that Monday’s meeting went on longer than expected as, “The lawyer from the trust was very, very thorough.”
He said that while the full cost of hiring O’Gara is not yet known, initial figures were, “less than expected.”
Beauregard said he has heard nothing regarding the an assertion in other local media made by Providence-based Attorney David Cass that, “at least one other person who had complaints about the top town executive’s behavior.” A report cited the claim in a headline while sharing no further details regarding the statement. Alves said she also is unaware of any additional complaints against the administrator.
Reached this week, Cass told NRI NOW that, “there have been indications that there’s someone that has complaints about the administrator,” but that he does not know of any other legal action that has been filed.
The attorney noted he is unable to discuss further details of Rovedo’s case, with the ongoing negotiations also leaving Zwolenski silent on the matter on advisement from legal counsel. The administrator has stated only that the trust is handling the case.