NORTH SMITHFIELD – A discussion this week of the decision to hire a grant writer on a temporary basis in order to meet deadlines for certain funding initiatives may have led to more questions than answers for many in attendance this week at a meeting of the North Smithfield Town Council.
At issue was the one month hire of Lisa Andoscia, president and CEO of Rosewood Consulting, at a cost not to exceed $5,000, a decision Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski says he made following consultation with Town Council President Kimberly Alves and Councilor John Beauregard.
But Alves said she was never comfortable with the idea – and that she expressed as much during a call on the matter. And other councilors questioned the administrator’s assertion that he had authority to spend the $5,000 without council approval.
Town Solicitor David Igliozzi said he was not prepared to speak on the matter, and may have further muddied the issue by stating that he did not believe the charter allowed for the spending.
Following the meeting, NRI NOW found that one likely source of confusion at the meeting is that an amendment made to the town’s Code of Ordinances in 2021 has not yet been updated in documents currently available to the public online.
The issue surrounded two items on the council’s agenda on Monday, March 20. Councilors had discussed the possibility of hiring a grant writer at a previous meeting, with Andoscia offering a presentation of her past experience.
Following the presentation, the board voted unanimously to have the grant writer, who has done similar work for other municipalities across Rhode Island, submit a proposal.
But after the meeting, resident Mary Cimini submitted a letter to NRI NOW stating that the town should follow a formal process for the hire, and Igliozzi reportedly advised the board to put out an RFP to allow competitive bidding for the job soon after.
NRI NOW also reported that Andoscia had already been retained for the temporary one month hire at a cost of $5,000 – a decision that was not discussed at the meeting following the decision on Monday, March 6.
Councilor Douglas Osier objected to finding out about the hire from local news.
“We just want to be brought in on the conversation,” Osier said of the council.
Zwolenski noted that the decision to retain the grant writer on a temporary basis was made in order to meet grant deadlines the town otherwise may have missed. And he said that although he has the authority to purchase items and services costing less than $5,000 without council approval, “I sought and had the input of two councilors.”
Beauregard, who first started the initiative to seek a grant writer back in February, agreed, asking, “Wouldn’t it be a shame to miss a $2 million grant over procedural issues?”
But Osier noted that councilors were not informed of the decision – even after the fact at the March 6 meeting.
“We could have had a discussion,” Osier said. “We had no idea there were grants being applied for already. She was already under service for us. We could have had another conversation.”
Alves said she was never comfortable with the decision.
“How many times did I say I don’t feel comfortable without the full council, and you said ‘this is just a courtesy?'” Alves said. “I told you numerous times on the call. You said ‘I really don’t need you to say yes.'”
Councilor Paulette Hamilton, who herself served as administrator for four terms before she joined the council, questioned the dollar amount.
“What I’ve seen in the charter is $1,000,” Hamilton said.
As the group looked to Igliozzi for answers, the attorney responded, “I’m totally not prepared for this. I didn’t know it was an issue.”
The question of spending and purchases made without bidding or Town Council approval is addressed in Section 6-4 of the town’s Code of Ordinances titled, “Purchasing and Competitive Bidding.”
In June of 2021, NRI NOW reported that the council was looking to increase the amount town officials could spend without following the RFP process or seeking council approval. At the time – and at the time of Hamilton’s leadership – that amount was $1,000.
A version of the Town Charter found online also lists the $1,000 figure.
NRI NOW asked Zwolenski why a more recent version of the charter has not been made available online, and was told that the council voted to hire a company called General Code to perform the updates, which are now in process.
“My understanding is that job won’t be completed until around June of this year,” Zwolenski said.
He said that councilors should have called him with any questions on the matter.
“I knew that it had changed,” he said of the purchasing figure. “A simple phone call would help.”
Zwolenski also noted that when and if matching funds are required for grants – applied for as time permits in the town’s planning office, or water and sewer department – the projects typically go before the council for approval after the town receives notice.
“Before it goes out, council has to approve it,” Zwolenski said. Plus, he added, “There are other grants out there that could potentially offset any match.”
But with such answers unclear on Monday, tensions mounted as a debate continued.
“It’s just political,” Beauregard said of the councilor’s questions. “Would you invest $60,000 to get $1 million plus?”
But Osier said that Beauregard’s question over-simplified the matter.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of these conversations. We should be having more of them,” Osier said. “I just think we need to get away from that type of mentality.”
Both Osier and Hamilton said councilors should be kept apprised of both town needs and upcoming opportunities with a comprehensive list.
“While I applaud the grant, and I think it’s great, you don’t know what else is out there,” Osier said.
Andoscia said the need for such information is exactly why municipalities retain her services, and presented councilors with a synopsis of projects that could be eligible for funding.
“It begins with identifying funds,” Andoscia said. “I think there should be a methodology. How I work with clients, as soon as they come out, I email the grant opportunity. It’s just seamless communication.”
Andoscia listed several potential opportunities including grants for projects that target the senior population and one that could cover items such as the $60,000 the town recently spent to create a master plan for the Halliwell property, or pay for demolition of decaying buildings still present at the former school.
“There’s a lot of funding out there that can be done without taxpayer dollars,” she said.
She also defended the decision of her temporary hire, noting it was in order to meet the deadline to apply for up to $2 million to fund extension of the town water line to St. Paul Street.
“You need water pressure for fire suppression,” Andoscia said. “This is a public health issue.”
Councilor Claire O’Hara said she called officials in other towns where Andoscia is working.
“Over and over it was ‘we’re lucky to have her,'” O’Hara said. “Lisa Andoscia isn’t a stranger. She was raised in this town.”
On Monday, Igliozzi advised the board to vote on that temporary hire after the fact.
“I would reccommend that you approve the one month contract to avoid any legal issues,” Igliozzi said. “I don’t think the charter allows him to do this.”
Councilors approved that agenda item, and also voted unanimously to put out an RFP seeking a grant writer.