PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With the announcements last week that he has hired former City Council President Michael Solomon as a senior advisor and Melissa Malone as his chief operating officer, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza appears to be shaping his staff for the final year-and-a-half of his first term in office.
So as the Democrat begins to think about his re-election campaign next year, who else holds the top jobs in his administration?
Here’s a breakdown.
Chief operating officer
You might know this job as the director of administration, a post held by Michael D’Amico, Richard Kerbel and John Simmons over the last decade. (Lawrence Mancini, the current finance director, was acting DOA during Mayor Angel Taveras’s last year in office.) When Mayor Elorza took office, he hired Brett Smiley and changed the name of the job to COO. Smiley also had much more control over economic development matters than his predecessors. When Smiley left to become chief of staff for Gov. Gina Raimondo, Elorza named Robin Muksian to fill the spot. Muksian abruptly resigned in March and is now director of administration for Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. Enter Malone. A Trinity College and UConn-educated attorney, she worked for then-Treasurer Gina Raimondo and followed her to the governor’s office before launching M2 Consulting last year. She understands municipal finances and – perhaps more importantly – retirement benefits and is familiar with the city, having served as a member of the school board from 2009 to 2011. It seems likely she’ll oversee the budget process, long-term financial planning and union contract negotiations – starting with the teachers – moving forward.
Chief of staff
Pollock replaced Tony Simon as Elorza’s chief of staff last year, but was forced to take on an even larger role this year when Muksian resigned a month before the mayor proposed his budget. She became a key part of budget negotiations with the City Council, earning praise from tough-to-please Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi. With Malone in place, Pollock will likely be allowed to focus more on policy and overseeing the mayor’s staff. Her top deputies, Marisa O’Gara and Theresa Agonia, have also been a stabilizing presence in an administration that has seen a lot of turnover in the mayor’s first two-and-a-half years.
Chief policy officer
This job was previously held by Sheila Dormody, who left to work at The Nature Conservancy, and Courtney Hawkins, who now leads the R.I. Department of Human Services. Sabatini started in the city’s law department and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the municipal integrity officer in 2015. Sabatini has only recently taken over the policy shop, so it’s too soon to say exactly what she’ll focus on. Major policy initiatives on the horizon include the implementation of the Providence Community-Police Relations Act and the City Walk project, which will seek to connect nine neighborhoods to one another and to downtown, Roger Williams Park and India Point Park through bicycle lanes and pedestrian infrastructure improvements. It’s safe to assume Sabatini will also have a hand in the city’s effort to provide more support to the homeless.
Senior advisor on intergovernmental and municipal affairs
This is a newly created job, but it’s safe to say the former City Council president instantly becomes the savviest political mind on the mayor’s staff. What remains unclear is how he’ll be used. He’s got a good relationship with acting City Council President Sabina Matos – she endorsed him for mayor in 2014 – but has clashed with Igliozzi in recent years and isn’t friendly with Majority Leader Bryan Principe. At the state level, Solomon is generally respected by both the House and Senate, which might help Elorza with his legislative agenda next year.
The mayor’s third communications director since taking office, Crowell succeeded Evan England and David Ortiz, who now work in the treasurer’s office and governor’s office, respectively. She may be the most well-rounded aide Elorza has, showing a firm grasp of the mayor’s strengths and weaknesses as well as city and state politics on top of her role running the city’s PR shop. Her number two, press secretary Victor Morente, is also finding his footing in City Hall.
While state leaders still haven’t come to terms on a budget for the fiscal year that started July 1, the city budget process went smoother than ever. You can thank Mancini for that. A city employee for more than 30 years, Mancini knows City Hall inside and out and can manage personalities on the City Council better than anyone. While the city finished with a surprise deficit during Elorza’s first year in office, Mancini’s office oversaw large surpluses over the last two years. Now city leaders are asking the world’s three largest credit rating agencies to consider boosting their outlooks on Providence.
As any solicitor is quick to point out, being the city’s top lawyer means representing both the administration and the City Council. Dana, who was appointed to the four-year job by the mayor and confirmed by the council, is no different. But in addition to his regular duties, he also played a key role in negotiating a new contract with the city’s firefighters, a deal that helped partially resolve the biggest conflict Elorza has had to date. There’s still work to do on the firefighter front, however. We still don’t know how much the city owes the firefighters in back pay for changing their work schedules in 2015.
Director of governmental affairs
Asen’s actual title is director of partnerships and intergovernmental affairs. It’s a job previously held by Jonathan Boucher, who left to work for a councilman in New York City, and Kristen Dart, who left to work for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Asen isn’t quite as political as his predecessors, but he has a strong policy mind. Asen’s top deputy is Matt Shumate, who appears to be spending a lot of time monitoring the City Council for the mayor’s office.
Public safety jobs
Public safety commissioner: Steven Pare
Police chief: Col. Hugh Clements
Fire chief: vacant
Pare and Clements were the top holdovers from the Taveras administration and have remained among the strongest leaders in the city. Pare has also had to take on an unexpected role: overseeing the fire department, which has been without a chief since 2015. (It’s unclear when that job will be filled.) Clements has shown he can do more with less, presiding over a department that recovered more guns than ever last year despite a force that has shrunk to 385 officers. Both Pare and Clements are frequently asked if they’re considering moving on, but no changes appear to be in their immediate future.
Superintendent of schools
Supt. Maher has drawn rave reviews since replacing the popular Dr. Susan Lusi. The mayor loves that he lives in Providence and sends his children to public schools. He’s also proven to be politically savvy, successfully lobbying for state lawmakers to approve funding for English language learners the last two years. Maher is currently facing the first major challenge of his career in Providence, as police investigate how the school department handled a child molestation investigation.
Economic development director
Huang operates under the radar compared to his predecessor, James Bennett. He appears to spend more time focusing on long-term economic strategies as opposed to the smaller development projects throughout the city. He loves talking about the city’s possibilities when it comes to the food economy as well as the port of Providence.
Director of planning and development
Nickerson has worked for the city since 2001, but has really come into her own under Mayor Elorza. She is now playing a key role in overseeing the city’s role in major transportation projects, including the proposed replacement of the 6-10 connector. She also has a hand in the city’s plan to take control of more than 300 vacant homes in effort to eliminate blight.