Johnston Senior Center director fired

Democratic Town Committee head hired


Johnston’s Mayor-elect has axed the Senior Center director and filled the role with the town’s soon-to-be-former Democratic Town Committee chairman.

“During the transition period, I have a great opportunity to be responsive to constituent feedback and implement change,” said Town Council Vice President and incoming Mayor Joe Polisena Jr. “All the decisions I make to retain, terminate and make appointments are reflective of that feedback.”

Polisena cleared his carefully worded statement with the town’s legal counsel before releasing it.

On Monday night, the Town Council tackled the “Appointment of Executive Director to the Johnston Senior Center” at its regular monthly meeting.

The job title has been tweaked slightly, but the post is responsible for all oversight at the bustling Senior Center on Hartford Avenue.

Now former Johnston Senior Center Director Matt Bolton was hired less than two years ago, when Anthony Zompa retired after two decades at the helm.

Town Council has now appointed Richard J. DelFino Jr., Chairman of the 55-member Johnston Democratic Town Committee, as Senior Center Executive Director. DelFino said he has no plans to run for re-election to the political position in the New Year when his term expires.

DelFino worked as Johnston Municipal Court Administrator and, until recently, served as Chairman of the Tri-County Community Action Agency Board of Directors.

“My background is in social work,” DelFino said. “My early years were (spent) working with seniors … going back to the late 70s … I’m excited about this new appointment. Because I think … I could bring a lot of ideas to strengthen the programming and the services that seniors can engage. So, I’m looking forward to it.”

On Monday afternoon, in Bolton’s former office, DelFino was sitting at the desk, sorting through stacks of paper, trying to make sense of the Senior Center’s records.

“I got a call from the mayor on Monday of last week, which basically indicated they were relieving (Matt Bolton) of his duties, and they asked me if I would be able to assume his responsibilities here in this capacity,” DelFino said from behind the director’s desk. “I would leave my responsibilities at the Municipal Court ... They indicated that they thought I’d be a good fit. I thought I would be too.”

DelFino plans to meet with the town’s finance director as soon as possible to get a “very very accurate shot of the financial status of the Senior Center … I’ll be really really transparent about that.”

Bolton, 27 at the time of his hiring, was a fairly recent Villanova University graduate, with a degree in sociology. The Cranston native and resident had previously worked at the Cranston Senior Enrichment Center.

Bolton started in Johnston on Jan. 3, 2021, in a lesser role, and trained under Zompa and late Assistant Director Mildred Santilli (Santilli died unexpectedly in March 2021 at age 71).

Zompa announced his retirement and Bolton was eventually appointed to the post by current Mayor Joseph M. Polisena, father of the incoming mayor. The hiring was approved by Town Council.

“I started in January, I think the first day was Jan. 3, and basically from then on Tony had indicated that he was leaning toward retiring and I had an idea that maybe this could be my job, and from the beginning I tried to learn from everyone that I could,” Bolton said in a 2021 interview with the Johnston Sun Rise. “We helped with vaccination rollout through Johnston, helped out through vaccination clinics, so basically anything that I could, I observed.”

Bolton did not respond to a request for comment following his termination last week. At the time of his firing he was working to plan Wednesday afternoon’s Senior Center Christmas Party. On Wednesday morning, more than a week later, the center’s staff was busy setting up for the festivities.

Bolton is the son of Attorney John J. Bolton, a Partner with the Providence firm Hinckley, Allen & Snyder LLP. John Bolton represented Bluewater Property Group when they appeared before the Johnston Planning and Zoning Boards, pitching the project that eventually became the Amazon robotic fulfillment center currently under construction off Hartford Avenue, several miles north of the Senior Center.

The deal resulted in a lucrative tax deal for Amazon, and the assurance of millions in tax dollars annually for Johnston. Town officials have indicated the funds from Amazon will cover the bond payments for the town-wide school facilities overhaul. After its completion, the Amazon structure is expected to be the Ocean State’s largest building.

All parties involved insist Matt Bolton’s hiring was unrelated to the pending Amazon project, which was working its way through the town’s regulatory boards simultaneously, and that the timing of the hiring is coincidental.

John Bolton returned a call for comment on his son’s firing Tuesday afternoon.

“I can tell you that Matt was told by both the Mayor-elect and the current chief of staff (Polisena’s Chief of Staff Doug Jeffrey) that this was a decision strictly having to do with the transition to a new administration and had nothing to do with his work performance,” John Bolton said. “The chief of staff also told Matthew that he had done a good job. My personal conversation with the chief of staff was the same.”

Sources at the Senior Center confirm a ranking officer with the Johnston Police Department was in Matt Bolton’s director’s office last Monday, in plain clothes, and eventually escorted him from the building.

Johnston Police Chief Joseph P. Razza would not confirm the presence of an officer at the termination.

“I have no comment regarding this matter,” Razza said Tuesday.

Sources have confirmed that the presence of a town police officer following a municipal employee’s termination, to escort the former employee off town property, is fairly common practice.

Matt Bolton led the Senior Center from behind the scenes through the remainder of the pandemic to this year’s tree lighting in the cafeteria before BINGO two weeks ago. He plugged in the tree and posed in front of it with Center Coordinator Denise Bell and her daughter, Center Supervisor Jacqueline Bell-Conroy.

Senior Center employees didn’t want to talk about Matt Bolton’s firing. Everyone interviewed said they were reluctant to go on-the-record, but sources confirmed the termination was a shock to the staff.

“I’m lucky that we have the staff here that we do, a really devoted staff, and I think what makes it important is we know that the place has been a destination in the community before and all of the seniors need in-person communication in their lives,” Bolton said in 2021, shortly after he was promoted. “I think with COVID, a lot of people eliminated that. It’s something that makes it easier knowing the center, knowing that once we get to the other side of the coronavirus, we can excel at what we do best — helping seniors have a good time from the moment they walk in the door.”

Bolton told the Sun Rise he didn’t see any problems with taking over the center at only 27 years old. He said he brought a “youthful perspective” to the table.

What’s the current status of the Johnston Senior Center? Is it financially sound? Are membership numbers and event attendance increasing?

DelFino said he doesn’t know yet, but he’ll soon find out, and share the answers publicly.

“The honest answer is that I’m accessing every aspect of the services that are provided, the opportunities that are afforded to the seniors,” DelFino said this week. “The staff here appear very committed, very dedicated; a group of very dedicated volunteers and what-not. I’ve spent a lot of time in the main area there. I’ve had lunch with the seniors. I’ve been observing. And there’s been no shortage of people with opinions, that have something to say about … how we can do things to improve services.”

For now, DelFino’s taking the new job one box at a time.

“We’ll continue to access and see where we think we can strengthen,” DelFino said. “I have a lot of ideas about how we can improve our numbers here. I would like this location to provide significant services to the elderly besides the recreational and social. I’m looking forward to that.”


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