Joseph Rull is Boston’s new ambassador to the people

Joe Rull, chief of operations in the Walsh cabinet, walked through the Ferdinand Building in Dudley Square.
Suzanne Kreiter / The Boston Globe
Joe Rull, chief of operations in the Walsh cabinet, walked through the Ferdinand Building in Dudley Square.

Marc Kadis was piping mad as he stormed away from the parking counter in City Hall recently. He had been feuding with the city of Boston over a pair of tickets totalling $95 and had come with pictures on his smartphone to prove that he was not in violation.

After much wrangling with a parking clerk, the charges were dropped and he was given a written warning. But that only set Kadis off again.

“I had to drag myself down here and spend all this time here for no reason,’’ said Kadis, heading for the exit.


To the average consumer, Boston City Hall is like an impenetrable wall, a place where disputes often end with little satisfaction.

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It is a perception that has worried Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who made improving the delivery of service a key mission in his new administration.

To lead that charge, he tapped his friend and close campaign adviser Joseph Rull, 37, a South Boston native and now, chief of operations.

In his newly created $150,000-a-year role, Rull will oversee seven departments such as personnel, government relations, and neighborhood services, a critical unit that takes the brunt of constituent requests, complaints, and ire.

Rull, a former neighborhood coordinator, said he welcomes the opportunity to demonstrate that government can and should work for the public. His aim is to put people first, while also acknowledging the dedicated service of city employees, he said.


“The way I’ve always worked and the way I want the city to function is that everyone here is an ambassador to Mayor Walsh, and that every person coming through City Hall should have a good experience,’’ said Rull, who lives in Norwell.

But even Rull acknowledges the concept is difficult to grasp.

“It’s different,’’ he said. “It’s going to be a cultural change. And it will be from the top down.”

Rull said he’s articulating his vision — and the mayor’s goal — to his department heads, which will eventually filter down to the public. The people who come in to complain about potholes or the ones pulling permits will soon notice a friendlier City Hall, he said.

He is considering customer service training for staff down the line and will be monitoring information retrieved from a data dashboard that is set up in the mayor’s office. The dashboard spits out real time-statistics on anything from graffiti-covered walls to 911 calls.


In an interview, Walsh spoke in broad terms about the details of his new directive to improve service, saying he wants better collaboration and communication among departments.

‘The way I’ve always worked and the way I want the city to function is that everyone here is an ambassador to Mayor Walsh, and that every person coming through City Hall should have a good experience.’’

Joseph Rull, chief of operations  

“I’m going to depend on the chiefs to do that,’’ Walsh said. “Joe is just one of those people to carry my vision for the city.”

Deep inside City Hall on a recent day, on the second floor, where parking fines and other issues are settled, lines of people stretched from counters and teller windows.

Bryan Juarez, a 29-year-old from Jamaica Plain, said he came to pay up parking tickets before renewing his car registration. The process was a breeze.

“I’m from San Francisco, and out there it’s a different experience — hostile,’’ he said. “Here it was easy.”

Ditto for Lisa Casserly, a 27-year-old South Boston resident, who came in for a temporary parking permit.

“I’ve never had a bad experience here,’’ she said.

But one Dorchester man was irate during an encounter recently in City Hall. He complained that he doesn’t understand why he is being fined for making repairs to his home.

“I paid $3,000 out of my pocket to do this,’’ said the man, who only identified himself by his last name, Riobe. “I paid a contractor. But they still keep giving me tickets, and no one is doing anything about it.”

Kadis was less kind about his interactions with City Hall.

“There is just incompetence here,’’ he said.

Rull said the new customer service philosophy will take time, but he and the mayor are committed to it.

Rull was born and raised in South Boston. When he was 7, his mother died, leaving Rull, his brother Dan, and their four sisters, Anne, Lynda, Lisa, and Jayne — now deceased — on their own.

With his mother’s death and father long out of the picture, South Boston gave him refuge at its neighborhood centers and youth clubs, he said. During hard times, when his family struggled for money, the government helped him through welfare.

“He was one of the kids who turned out good. I lost a few. But Joe always had a good head on his shoulders,’’ said Helen Alex, who for 30 years has been running the Tynan Community Center, where a young Rull was a regular.

As a teenager, Rull said, he emptied buckets, cleaned chalkboards, and swept floors to earn his financial aid at Don Bosco Technical High School. In college, he worked as a forklift operator and painted houses to earn extra cash.

As a young adult, he joined the boards of local nonprofits and volunteered in his neighborhood.

Menino hired him as a neighborhood coordinator in 2002 to be one of the public faces of the administration. He worked under Michael Kineavy, a top aide of Menino known for his intensity and fierce loyalty of the former mayor. Rull honed his skills representing the city at late-evening community meetings, where residents often raged.

“We were dealing with hot-button issues,’’ recalled Jerome Smith, a close friend and former neighborhood coordinator who worked with Rull. “There would be times when people would explode. Joe would just sit there, taking it all in and responding calmly.”

Rull said he understands the courage it takes for constituents to take their personal issues to City Hall. And his own past, being helped by others, is helping him shape how to both respect and respond to their concerns.

Rull left City Hall in 2006 and became a community representative for Massport.

When he left that job two years later, he returned to the Menino administration as a liaison to the Boston Redevelopment Authority and went on to work for Governor Deval Patrick’s reelection campaign in 2010.

All the while, as he held a job as Patrick’s legislative director, Rull worked into the night valet-parking cars in the Fenway and serving as a bar back and bartender on the South Boston waterfront to make ends meet for himself, his wife, Caroline, and their growing family.

He was bartending while working on Walsh’s campaign and gave it up only in October.

Unable to get their daughter into any of their school assignment choices, they left the city for Norwell four years ago.

Under city charter, he has to move back by June.

Rull and Walsh first met some 14 years ago, when they teamed with advocates to address suicides in South Boston. They would reconnect over other issues, including substance abuse and recovery, causes dear to Rull, whose close family members were afflicted with addiction.

The pair grew closer while working on Patrick’s campaign, and when Walsh decided to run for mayor, he asked Rull to help him.

“It was almost like a movement,’’ recalled Rull of the campaign that started out small and ballooned.

As he settles into his role, all eyes are watching to see what Rull can deliver.

Former city councilor John Tobin said he has no doubt in the abilities of Rull, whom he described as an unruffled, level-headed former aide who learned from Menino and Kineavy.

“Time will tell how he handles a crisis,’’ Tobin said, now vice president for city and community affairs at Northeastern University. “But I think he learned from a lot of great people. There is a lot of confidence in his abilities.”

At his first meeting with his department heads last month, Rull listened closely as officials summed up the hot topics in their respective departments, such as progress on the redevelopment of Ferdinand Building, the location for the new school department in Dudley Square.

Sitting there, Rull’s mind raced to his journey here and thankful for the chance to be there.

“I’m Joe Rull,’’ he said. “and I’m the same guy I was many years ago.”

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.