Mark Carruolo started working for the city as a draftsman in 1984 in the Department of Public Works (DPW), when he was fresh out of URI, and ended up as one of the architects of how the city has developed, and in recent times as the right hand man to Mayor Scott Avedisian.
Carruolo retired as the mayor’s chief of staff on Friday, a job that he took to quickly and one that fellow employees found him well suited for.
“My nature is to be organized and to see things improve,” Carruolo said in an interview last week.
Even as he was cleaning out his office, a door away from the mayor’s office, evidence of Carruolo’s love of family, cars and hockey could be seen everywhere. Pictures drawn by his children were pinned to a corkboard; on the desk, a Lucite cube with a hockey player etched inside; and, of course, there are the many pictures of cars.
Yesterday, Avedisian named William DePasquale Jr. as interim chief of staff. DePasquale will continue in his role of city planner while taking on the added responsibilities of chief of staff. He was named city planner when Carruolo was named chief of staff.
Carruolo is not one to sugarcoat. He tells it the way he sees it, and when he’s convinced he’s doing the right thing for the city, he doesn’t back down. That doesn’t always make for harmony.
He’s stood up to members of the City Council and to some of the state’s largest developers. In the latter case, as City Planner, he refused to back down from opposition to Alfred Carpionato’s plan for a development anchored by a box store off Airport Road and Commerce Drive, with plans to connect the development to Route 37. Carruolo saw it diluting the Route 2 corridor, which was designated for such development. Carruolo couldn’t say how the mayor or council would act on a rezoning, but he couldn’t be convinced otherwise. Carpionato brought suit, seeking $23 million in damages.
“I make decisions because they’re proper decisions,” he said, reflecting on the suit that Carpionato dropped after five years. “When the answer is ‘No,’ I say ‘No.’”
It wasn’t personal.
Carruolo points out that he favored Carpionato’s development of the former Apex property on Greenwich Avenue as “good development,” which was reflected in favorable recommendations for the construction of Stop & Shop and Lowe’s.
After two years working with Elton Kindly in the engineering division of DPW, he was named an associate planner in the planning department. With degrees in urban affairs and political science, he was well suited for the job. He advanced in the department and, in 1999, when then Mayor Lincoln Chafee left to complete the Senate term of his late father, John Chafee, City Planner Jonathan Stevens left with him. Acting Mayor Gerald Gibbons asked Carruolo to take over the position. When Avedisian won in a special election, he asked him to stay on.
He found himself immediately put to the test.
“There was a tremendous wave of development going on,” he said of the stampede to build houses and condos and cash in on skyrocketing home prices.
Developers were pressuring to subdivide lots to as small as 8,000 square feet to build houses and to have commercial land rezoned for condos. Carruolo was opposed to high-density development in suburban areas and that the loss of area for commercial development would mean fewer jobs. Furthermore, as proved correct, he saw a declining population and questioned who would be buying all these new housing units. One of those proposed developments was for more than 400 housing units at Rocky Point.
While concerned by the effect of the housing bubble that burst in 2008 and the recession that followed, the city was faced with the loss of housing to airport expansion and Carruolo was frustrated by the lack of a clear plan for the airport.
Starting with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation’s first president, Elaine Roberts, he asked, “What do you want your airport to be? They would never articulate that. The plan for the airport changed multiple times.”
Looking back to the early days of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, and Gov. Bruce Sundlun’s plan for the terminal, Carruolo said there wasn’t the traffic to support such a large facility or the revenue to pay off the bonds. He didn’t see how it was going to work. And then everything changed.
“Southwest made it what it is today. It’s a huge boost [to the local economy],” he said. But he also sees the airport eroding the tax base.
In his role as chief of staff, he was intimately involved in contract negotiations and projecting what the demands would have on municipal finances, particularly pension funds, in the short- and long-term. His ability to explain complex issues in simple terms, without injecting personalities and despite the intensity of the debate, made him a calming influence.
As chief of staff, Carruolo was exposed to the wide range of issues that land on the mayor’s desk; from neighborhood concerns about cut-through traffic to a declining school population and proposals to consolidate, which, in turn, spawned yet other groups focused on saving schools.
“Everybody has special interests,” he said.
The mayor’s office is “everybody’s people.” The challenge, he adds, is achieving a balance between competing interests while doing what is best for the city.
Avedisian called Carruolo’s departure “a sad day for all of us.” He said Carruolo’s knowledge of the planning department and what the city wanted made his advice invaluable. As evidence of that, Avedisian noted that the governor has asked Carruolo to serve on the state retirement board.
On a personal level, Carruolo has an aversion to people who are less than genuine and he’s not bashful about telling them so to their faces. It’s no wonder Avedisian asked him to stay and, by the same token, it’s no wonder that Carruolo said he couldn’t.
Carruolo was only 10 years old when his father died. And with a family history of early deaths, Carruolo is focused on being with his children, Ryan, 11, and Emily, 10, for the summer. He’s not sure what he’ll do when they return to school. He has returned to coaching hockey, after he broke his foot in a freak accident on the ice rink. He enjoys teaching and is considering enrolling at Rhode Island College to get a teaching certificate with the thought of teaching history or social studies at a parochial school.
Carruolo continued cleaning out his desk throughout the interview. Suddenly he stopped and held up two drawings, both declaring he’s a hero. One is from his son; the other is from the son of a friend he coaches.
“Imagine that,” he said, grinning with delight. “I’m his hero.”
There are developers, city officials and, most likely, a few city workers who didn’t always think of him in those terms.
But then, that never really troubled Carruolo.