Joanne Massaro, First Female Public Works Commissioner

Joanne Massaro

Joanne Massaro never expected to become the commissioner of Boston’s Public Works Department.

But not only did she assume the role after serving as Public Works’ interim commissioner from January to July of 2010, she became the first woman to do so.

“It wasn’t on my radar,” Massaro said of the position. “I didn’t expect or think I’d want to be the permanent commissioner. At the time, you had to be an engineer, but as I was doing (the job), I realized I was enjoying it and that my skill set was well suited to what the needs of the job were. So I decided to apply.”

Massaro, who grew up in Hyde Park and has lived in Charlestown for the past 30 years, has led Public Works through several reforms and changes. One such reform is the department’s conversion of the city’s street lights from mercury vapor lighting to LED, which lasts longer and will save money for the city, said Public Works Chief of Staff Matt Mayrl.

Other projects include reducing overtime and lost time throughout the department, expanding the use of technology to make the department better, and moving street sweeping to occur after trash collection.

“We focus on the things that have a benefit for people out in the street,” said a reserved Massaro, whose background is in management. “You start with a simple idea and realize it’s not so simple. You have to change street signs and routes. You can’t do it all at once. But people are very good actually about letting us know when we’ve done something well.”

Massaro has worked for the city for more than 15 years. She has held the positions of director of policy, director of operations and interim director of the Department of Neighborhood Development in Mayor Menino’s administration. She has also served as the special projects director in the Office of Administration and Finance. She earned a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1995.

She said that most of her training as commissioner happened on the job. She learned the importance of being present every day and bringing humility as well as confidence to the position. Having good observational and listening skills and asking questions of those around her, especially when faced with challenges, also helped Massaro, she said.

“You don’t realize what the challenge is until you’re in the middle of the job and a season like last winter,” she said. “You feel like you’re at war, planning strategies little by little and everyone pulling together. You have to be prepared each and every time. That’s where the importance of the team comes in.”

Other challenges, external and internal, include “trying to keep roadways in good repair – and we never seem to have enough resources, so we try to get to the worst first – and making change,” Massaro said. “It’s never a simple matter and requires perseverance and thoughtfulness.”

Massaro’s managerial experience in the city also extends to Charlestown. In the 1980s, she and her sister started Sorelle Bakery and Café at its original location at Monument Ave and Main Street.

“I raised my two girls in Charlestown,” said Massaro. “It’s a village in an urban setting. I have a lot of friends there. I love the feel. I can walk to work. There’s a real sense of civic-mindedness that I appreciate.”

As for Massaro’s colleagues, they seem to be learning as much from her as she is from them.

“Working with Joanne has been a great opportunity to learn from a skilled leader and make some change within a large organization,” said Chief of Staff Matt Mayrl.

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