Johnston’s state senator has been working for the town since Jan. 1.
His opponents say the position was a maneuver to keep him out of the mayor’s race.
State Sen. Frank Lombardo III insists he never said publicly that he was considering a run for mayor, and he’s one of the few men in the state qualified for the town job.
Johnston’s mayor says he hired Lombardo because he was the right man for the job, and the town needed a qualified inspector to oversee the town’s mammoth Amazon construction project.
A black, four-wheel drive Ford Explorer with a blue and white town license plate sat outside Lombardo’s home at 10 Anson Brown — a small dead-end waterfront street — on Tuesday afternoon.
Next to the Explorer, Lombardo parked his white Jaguar Pace SUV, with “SENATE” license plates.
Lombardo previously lived on Rollingwood Drive in Johnston, but recently moved to Anson Brown following the announcement of a possible industrial solar farm pitched for construction behind the homes on Rollingwood. Lombardo penned a letter opposing the development, which was ultimately defeated by the Johnston Planning Board (but the case still lingers in court following an appeal by Cranston-based Green Development).
On Tuesday afternoon, despite the two “work” vehicles parked in his driveway, Lombardo was not home. He said he was spending time at the office of his third job, helping to run Lombardo & Sons Heating & AC in Providence.
“My position with the town is mechanical inspector for commercial projects, partially for the Amazon project,” Lombardo said over the phone Tuesday. “I’m on call full-time. Yesterday I was there twice. I’ll be back there again tomorrow.”
An Amazon robotic fulfillment and sorting facility is under construction about a mile from Lombardo’s home, both just off Route 6 (Hartford Avenue). The Amazon building is expected to eventually be the largest structure ever built in the Ocean State, according to state officials.
Lombardo said he’s a certified master in three trades: refrigeration, pipefitting and sheet metal.
“I’m one of 48 people in Rhode Island with those three licenses, which qualifies me as mechanical inspector,” Lombardo explained.
The job offer
Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena vehemently defended the hiring.
“I approached him with hat in hand and asked him to come on board,” Polisena said Wednesday.
Lombardo started on the job with the New Year, Polisena says to coincide with the start of construction at the Amazon site, near the Hartford Avenue intersection with I-295.
“The town has a part-time plumbing inspector, but we didn’t have a mechanical inspector,” Polisena explained. “Quite frankly, I’d rather we get the fees than the state (for inspections at the site). And I told him I also wanted him to be my compliance officer. I was very glad that he took the position on.”
The hiring was not discussed in public session. Lombardo did not announce he took the job. Town Council never debated the hiring.
“There’s not going to be public discussion on this,” Polisena said. “As mayor, I create positions and hire people as I see fit.”
Mayor Polisena hired Lombardo, and according to the proposed town budget (approved by Town Council last month), Lombardo (his position listed on the budget as “Minimum Housing Coordinator"), had been paid $33,846 year-to-date as of May 16. The town’s Finance Department recommended funding the position at $81,600 annually (a salary $6,600 more than the mayor’s $75,000 annual paycheck).
The mayor confirmed the salary, and added that Lombardo will receive “absolutely no health care benefits.” However, Lombardo’s wife, a 25-year school department employee, has the option to cover her spouse for life under her contract with the town.
Lombardo said he has joined the Local 808 Union (for Rhode Island’s judicial, professional and technical employees). Town officials have confirmed that the number of Local 808 Union employees in Johnston has potentially more than doubled in the past year (though the total number of Johnston town employees in the union remains relatively low).
Never a candidate
Both Lombardo and Polisena insist the incumbent state senator never publicly announced his intent to run for mayor.
JDTC Chairman Richard J. DelFino Jr. insisted, “Frank Lombardo never told me he was interested in running for mayor.”
“He never said it,” DelFino said. “Other people said it. I think every name of every elected official was mentioned. Obviously the mayor was term-limited and people talked about who would succeed him. I probably heard 20 names. It wasn’t as if anyone ever told me he was running.”
Mayor Polisena’s son, Joe Polisena Jr., the sitting vice-president of Johnston Town Council, announced his bid for mayor months ago. The Democrat likely face two independent candidates: Karen E. Cappelli Chadwick and Brenda Lynn Leone, both Independents. He faces no Democratic primary opponent.
“I never even heard him say he’d run for mayor,” Mayor Polisena said in an interview Wednesday morning. “I think he’s a great senator. I like how he’s helped us. He helped eliminate the car tax. He made sure he helped get the bond issue through the General Assembly. I didn’t have a full-time mechanical inspector and he’s doing very well for the town.”
Rhode Island will hold its Statewide Primary on Tuesday, Sept. 13.
Sen. Lombardo, who has been endorsed by the Johnston Democratic Town Committee (JDTC), faces an opponent in the Democratic Primary.
The Democrat representing District 25 (Johnston) will face candidate and former state senator Christopher B. Maselli, and hopes to earn his place on the November ballot. The winner will likely face Republican Sandra Beth Taylor in the General Election.
Maselli formerly held the senate seat, but resigned in disgrace after pleading guilty to mortgage fraud charges, losing his license to practice law in the state, and spending more than a year incarcerated. Maselli, however, worked his way back after his release, fought successfully for reinstatement of his law license, and has decided to try to win back the seat he was forced to leave.
"In 2010 when Frank Lombardo was elected he was an independent business man with no political ties,” Maselli said in a statement emailed Tuesday. “Today, he is getting awarded State Contracts and is a Town Employee. How can he objectively represent constituents on projects like Amazon and the solar fields that affect our quality of life? He will have to do what ‘the Boss’ says. He has become the ultimate career politician.”
“It’s just amazing,” Mayor Polisena said about Maselli, Lombardo’s opponent. “This is a free country, but to have a convicted felon who betrayed his grandmother running for office … I just think that’s hilarious. I guess it’s everyone’s right to run.”
An anonymous political mailer has been delivered to Johnston voters’ doorsteps defending Maselli and castigating Lombardo’s unannounced employment for the town.
The budget line-item for the position is included under the “Inspector’s Office.” The position of “Minimum Housing Coordinator” was filled in 2019 and 2020, but the salary was $65,000. The position was vacant in 2021, but filled by Lombardo to start the New Year in 2022.
Polisena and Lombardo both said that the senator’s position on the town payroll will benefit taxpayers.
“It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to have to pay a private person to come in for these inspections,” Polisena said.
Rather than fees paid to other state inspectors or private inspectors, inspections at the Amazon site (and other new businesses in town) will be performed by Lombardo, a town employee.
“Quite frankly, he has several licenses other folks don’t,” Mayor Polisena said. “When we get minimum housing complaints, he handles that. And they’re going to be putting 97 air-conditioning units on the building by helicopter. He’s going to be there for that. I’m very glad Sen. Lombardo came on as my inspector, mechanical inspector and compliance officer inspector.”
Lombardo is a member of the Associated Builders and Contractors, the Rhode Island Builders, and a member of the Refrigeration Service and Engineering Society, according to his state legislator’s bio.
Polisena said Lombardo will eventually also undertake tasks like inspecting trash left out in curbs in ways that violate regulations.
“He will inspect trash on the curbs; trash that’s not in bins,” Polisena said. “I’m very glad that he came on.”
Lombardo is a member of the Senate Committees on Commerce, Labor, and Rules, Government Ethics & Oversight. He’s the sitting Chairman of the Senate Committee on Housing & Municipal Government.
When asked about Lombardo’s hiring by the mayor, and insinuations made that the job offer was intended to keep Lombardo out of the upcoming mayor’s race, mayoral candidate Joe Polisena Jr. said emphatically: “That’s absolutely false. That’s not true.”
“I had never seen Frank say that he was running for mayor,” Polisena Jr. said. “I’ve walked with Frank before. Campaigned with Frank before. And anyone trying to say otherwise are obviously people running against Frank or running against me.”
Town Council oversight
Polisena Jr. also defended the lack of discussion on the hiring in public session.
“I don’t know if this is something that would need the council’s approval,” he said.
Town Councilman Robert J. Civetti, who represents District 5, said the board has little say over who the mayor hires and fires.
“The Mayor and his administration is responsible for all hiring in the Town,” Civetti said Wednesday. “As a member of the Town Council I have no say in who the Mayor hires to work for the Town unless it is the hiring of an independent contractor in which the Town must go out to competitive bid to engage. In these instances the Administration will present a summary of the bids received to the Council along with their recommendation for the awarding of the contract.”
Town Council, however, does approve the town budget, which includes employee salaries. The budget line for the position Lombardo filled on the first day of 2022 was left blank last summer, when Town Council approved that year's budget.
“The position of Minimum Housing Coordinator was vacant and not included in the fiscal 2021 or fiscal 2022 budgets presented by the administration and approved by the Town Council,” Civetti said. “This position appears to have been filled (although unbudgeted) during fiscal 2022 and was included in the budget for fiscal 2023 at $81,600. The Council is not involved in the day to day operations of the Town and therefore I would suggest that you discuss the roles and responsibilities of this position with the Administration.”
The job description
In office since 2010, Lombardo has sponsored a wide range of legislation, including the Small Business Friendliness Omnibus package, signed into law in 2018. The bill helped to eliminate and consolidate numerous business licensing and fee requirements.
The town’s official job description for Lombardo’s post (Code Enforcement Officer/Special Projects Inspector) spells out the position’s expectations.
“The Code Enforcement Officer/Special Projects Inspector position performs a variety of technical duties in support of the Town’s local code enforcement program; monitors and enforces a variety of applicable ordinances, codes, and regulations related to zoning, land use, nuisance housing, building codes, health and safety, blight, graffiti, water waste, and other matters of public concern; and serves as a resource and provides information on Town regulations to property owners, residents, businesses, the general public, and other Town departments and divisions,” according to the job description. “The position reports directly to the Mayor and/or Chief of Staff. Due to the nature of the job and it being a 24/7 on-call position, the hours are non-standard.”
While on-the-job, Lombardo’s duties will include (but are not limited to): acting as the lead Special Projects Inspector for the town; receive and respond to citizen complaints and reports from other agencies and departments on alleged violations of town zoning and related municipal codes and ordinances; interview complainant and witnesses; conduct investigations and provide recommendations for resolution; conduct field investigations; inspect properties for violations; attempt to make contact at the residence or business in order to resolve violation; issue and post warning notices, notices of violation, corrective notices, orders to comply, and related documentation for code violations; schedule and perform all follow-up functions to gain compliance including letters, inspections, calls, meetings, discussions, and negotiations to ensure compliance with appropriate codes and ordinances; issue citations and notices of violation as necessary.
Lombardo will be required to prepare evidence in support of legal actions taken by the town and appear in court as necessary to testify at hearings and in court proceedings.
The job’s requirements of “education and experience” include: “five years of related experience” and a candidate “must hold professional licenses in refrigeration, sheet metal and pipe fitting.”
According to Mayor Polisena, Lombardo fit the description.
“Three years ago I said I had some interest in running for mayor,” Lombardo said Tuesday. “The mayor actually said I would be a good candidate.”
Lombardo insists, that at age 64, he decided he was no longer interested in the four-year minimum term required by a mayor.
“I never made a public announcement that I was running for mayor of the town of Johnston,” Lombardo said. “I’m a business owner and a year and a half ago I semi-retired and turned the business over to my brother and son. I went back to my hobbies: golfing in the summer and skiing in the winter. The mayor position at this time of my life was not something I was interested in.”
Lombardo & Sons has been handling some hefty projects. Sen. Lombardo said the company has been working on “an Air Force base in Maine” (a government contract), as well as several school and hospital projects.
Lombardo said his employment with the town will likely last about two years, through the completion of the Amazon project.
“This is probably a very short term position,” Lombardo said. “When Amazon is completed, I don’t think there will be a lot of need for me, unless there’s another project coming that I’m not aware of.”
Lombardo insists he only uses the town’s Ford Explorer to access the Amazon construction site.
“That vehicle is not used for personal use,” he insisted.
Lombardo said the accusations that he took the job with the town in lieu of entering the mayor’s race, is pure propaganda from his opponent’s political allies.
“I understand that this is all coming from my opponent and his supporters,” Lombardo said. “They’ve made comments to me. I’ve been a senator for 12 years. They’re just throwing darts up against the wall.”
Some major responsibilities are attached to the inspector’s job.
“I don’t take this lightly at all,” Lombardo said. “If I’m inspecting a 6-inch gas pipe, people’s lives could be at stake. My licenses are very important to me.”
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