Citizen questions donation to a Smithfield Town Hall employee's son

Citizen questions donation to a Smithfield Town Hall employee's son

Questions whether taxpayer funds should be earmarked for a single family

SMITHFIELD - The quality of mercy is under scrutiny here, and as a result the Town Council may adopt a formal policy governing its charitable donations.

The issue arose Dec. 3 when a taxpayer, Jeffrey Swallow, excoriated the council for giving $2,000 in public money to a Cranston father whose wife died of cancer last month at age 36, leaving the dad to raise a 6-year-old son.

The recipient, 35-year-old Adam Aquilante, is the son of Smithfield's deputy town clerk, Carol Aquilante, whom the council on Monday named town clerk to replace the retiring Dianne Ady.

Swallow said that while he was not minimizing the depth of the tragedy that has beset the Aquilantes, the council acted arbitrarily in giving away taxpayer money "that is not yours to give."

In a series of prior e-mail exchanges with municipal officials, Swallow wrote that the gift smacks of conflict of interest because Aquilante is an associate in town government.

He said, "There are plenty of people in Smithfield who could use $2,000 to get them through rough times. Are they not eligible for this act of kindness?

President Alberto LaGreca Jr. replied that the council donation "was an emotional response to a tragic situation. We're human - we made an emotional decision. Was it the best decision? You can look back and take it either way."

Even in retrospect, he said, "I might make the same decision again."

Swallow cited a litany of concerns, among them alleged lack of council authority to make such a donation; the absence of a policy governing gifts; and lack of controls to ensure the money would be used appropriately, especially since the donation was to an individual rather than a recognized organization.

In fact, Swallow said, the Aquilantes never even asked for the money, which was taken from a council contingency fund that has been tapped in the past for charitable causes.

The council on its Nov. 19 meeting agenda indicated it would discuss donating $100 to the family, but on a motion by Maxine Cavanagh - who cited Carol Aquilante's long service to the town - instead agreed on $2,000 without discussion.

In an email to Town Manager Dennis Finlay, Swallow wrote he was alarmed that town money "can be earmarked at the apparent whim of any member of the council."

In a subsequent email to the council, Swallow quoted from an email Cavanagh sent him in which she explained that Aquilante's son was reared in Smithfield and that the council "wanted to give to someone who they consider part of their 'family.'"

That was exactly the issue, Swallow responded.

"This is not a club," he said at the council meeting. "You decided, because she's a member of the club, to give her money."

Cavanagh said in her email that the council's donation helped pay for Michelle Aquilante's funeral in Cranston. She died Nov. 12 after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer.

Swallow told the council, "I just don't think the town should be in the charity business. If you want to give, take it out of your own pockets - that's what should have happened."

Councilwoman Suzanna Alba, and LaGreca, said Swallow made a good point in highlighting the lack of a policy, and while the council took no formal vote, indications were that guidelines will be drafted.

Cavanagh said later in the week that she would have no further comment on the issue.

Aquilante, 59, has been in the town clerk's office for 27 years, ever since her appointment as an entry-level clerk in 1986.

The senior Town Hall employee in length of service, she is a graduate of Mount Pleasant High School who attended CCRI and is certified as a municipal clerk and master municipal clerk through programs operated by the International Institute of Municipal Clerks.

Town Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. said the council's unanimous vote in selecting Aquilante, after interviewing six candidates, came because of her long "soup to nuts" experience in municipal government, the respect she has earned on the job, and the fact that she's "someone in town who has the experience to do the job."

LaGreca has stressed a preference for hiring locally as long as a candidate is qualified.

He said the council did not discuss salary, but the position was advertised at a range from $61,500 to $64,500.

The appointment is officially effective Jan. 3, the date Ady retires after eight years on the job.

The town clerk is the only municipal department head whose hiring is within the purview of the council rather than Town Manager Finlay, who will make the hire for the now open deputy clerk's position, LaGreca said.

Comments

They didn't even TRY to hide it! The almighty Town Council has spoken! IT IS DONE! When questioned, they defend their position???? Is this what it has come to? WE ARE ALL SCREWED! That's the taxpayers money...isn't someone going to DEMAND that the money be returned by those who wrongfully GAVE it away to THEIR FAMILY??? This can't be legal...HOW? Yes, I'm appalled!

It's too bad this family suffered a loss. But how in the world can the Council give away tax dollars to individual people? This is not even a charity! Plenty of people who live in Smithfield die each week. Will the Council be giving them money too? There's no doubt the Council violated the Town Charter on this one. I bet they violated state law too. And there's no doubt they violated the state code of ethics. I wonder if someone will file an ethics complaint for them giving money to one of the "family." THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS!!!!

If Councilwoman Cavanagh wants to support "one of the family," why doesn't she pull out her OWN checkbook? She sure looks like a big spender when it's OUR money! Cavanagh has a LOT of explaining to do on this one!