When Commissioner Paul Caragiulo first took on the issue of amplified sound in downtown a year ago, he knew it would be controversial.
But he didn’t know it would become a complex topic and that he’d spend hours studying other cities’ codes and researching Supreme Court cases as he tried to find middle ground for an ordinance that would work in downtown Sarasota.
In the past, both sides of the debate have become so entrenched that the topic of noise has become a contentious discussion ignored by recent elected officials.
But the 38-year-old restaurateur, who was elected to the City Commission in 2011 waded into the issue, holding recent public — and sometimes rowdy — workshops. He drafted a compromise agreement that would allow amplified music downtown, albeit a short-lived compromise. Caragiulo has even spent time with a Sarasota police officer while she measured decibel levels.
“He is willing to work with conflict, as opposed to pushing it down,” said Diana Hamilton, a downtown advocate.
Caragiulo’s style is to study a topic and take a stand. Caragiulo’s work with the sound ordinance shows his leadership approach. The commissioner who has advocated vocally for a strong-mayor proposal has become a kind of “strong commissioner.”
“You can call him a strong commissioner,” said Hamilton, who ran for a separate district seat in 2011 when Caragiulo ran for office. “I would say he is trying to influence the future.”
Caragiulo wouldn’t call himself that. But he feels comfortable with one aspect of the label.
“I don’t do anything behind closed doors,” Caragiulo said. “I don’t see myself as a strong commissioner — as a commissioner having any extra authority. But, I do feel free to express my mind. I don’t look at this job as just a way to have a name tag and stand up at Tiger Bay and have everyone wave at me. I take this job very seriously.”
Shortly after being elected, Caragiulo fought what he called “poorly implemented” parking meters on Main Street.
He eventually convinced two other commissioners to vote with him to remove the meters. Often, though, on the tough issues, Caragiulo is alone.
He continues to support a “strong” elected-mayor proposal that has been turned down by voters four times, in 1996, 2002, 2006 and 2009.
He was the single no vote against a Walmart appeal that was broadly backed by neighborhood groups.
Despite being on the losing side of votes, the commissioner has championed his vision for downtown.
“I’m not different because I want to be contrarian,” Caragiulo said. “I’m just in a different place. I didn’t come here to retire or relax.”
His supporters say Caragiulo is taking on the topics that matter to his downtown district and the city’s economic health.
In 1990, Caragiulo moved with his family from East Rockaway, N.Y., to Sarasota, when his father and four brothers started Caragiulos Italian Restaurant.
Caragiulo recalls how six years later he moved to a 400-square-foot apartment on the fourth floor of the Orange Blossom building, at Main and Palm Avenues, near the restaurant.
He was 23, living on his own for the first time and paying less than $500 a month for a place with a view of Main Street. He was working long hours at the restaurant and living off patty melts and burgers at The Sports Page. He recalls Kanega, a café on Main Street, with its Greenwich Village feel, and the bars with live music. He never drove anywhere, except to golf.
Although Caragiulo didn’t get involved in local politics until 2006, when he joined the city’s Civil Service Board, his vision for his city began taking shape when he lived in that tiny apartment.
One of the top issues for Caragiulo during the remainder of his term is to find ways to promote affordable units that will give young professionals and artists the same opportunity he had to live downtown. That might mean looking at density caps and allowing developers to build more units on certain parcels of land.
“We need 10 of those,” Caragiulo said about the Orange Blossom building in the ’90s.
Kerry Kirschner, former mayor and executive director of the Argus Foundation, said Caragiulo’s stance on issues and his votes at the commission dais are shaped by his vision for downtown.
“If you can label him, Paul is the downtown commissioner,” Kirschner said. “His focus is on making downtown work.”
Kirschner said Caragiulo wants downtown to be a place where people, live, work and shop — a place with more residential and an active business community downtown.
Caragiulo, who now lives with his wife, Nikki, and his two daughters Sophie, 6, and Caroline, 4, in the Granada neighborhood, still works a full shift one day a week in the family restaurant, on Palm Avenue.
The bulk of his time, however, is spent as a commissioner. Most of the time he is on the phone. He has a list of more than 20 people whom he calls regularly — ranging from development lawyer Casey Colburn to Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores Neighborhood President Vald Svekis. He works until he is “exhausted,” and his wife often has to persuade him to try not to bother people on the weekends.
Caragiulo has spent hours every week on the sound ordinance for nearly the past year.
Although, many commissioners would want to step back from the debate and form a committee, Caragiulo is taking it head-on and hearing both sides, Hamilton said.
Caragiulo is the type of leader who has a clear view of what he wants to see happen in the city, the kind of elected official who seems to have become rare, Colburn said.
“Paul is a doer,” said Colburn, who talks to the commissioner several times a week.
“In this town, the doers are mostly independent.”
Although Caragiulo acknowledges when he is wrong, he is not willing to bend just because of political persuasion, Colburn said. He isn’t afraid to take on controversial issues. He doesn’t abide by the agenda of powerful neighborhood groups just to get votes.
“I don’t think Paul is a blow-in-the-wind politician,” said Kirschner. “He is willing to stand alone.”
Coming from an entrepreneurial family, “Paul is very business-orientated,” Kirschner said.
Kirschner said he thinks, in some ways, Terry Turner is also a strong, issues-orientated commissioner — although the issues are different.
“You have to give (Caragiulo and Turner) credit,” Kirschner said. “If there is not immediate consensus, they work tirelessly to get them through.”
Colburn said another strong-stance commissioner was former Commissioner Ken Shelin.
Shelin accomplished a lot for downtown, Colburn said. But he wasn’t popular among fellow commissioners and neighborhood leaders and was skipped over for the ceremonial mayor spot. Shelin was voted out of his City Commission at-large seat in 2009.
“Paul might get skipped over,” Colburn said. “But I’m not sure he wants to be mayor. It’s a phony thing.”
Caragiulo has been a proponent of an elected-mayor form of government in Sarasota. The most recent proposal in August for an elected mayor failed on the argument that the proposal would create too powerful a leader.
The issue, he says, will come up again. A new proposal would model partly after the “strong mayor” form of governance approved by voters in 2009, in Pensacola.
Indian Beach resident Mel Harner was a backer of the elected-mayor proposal that failed in August. He was disappointed when Caragiulo voted, as part of an unanimous City Commission vote, against an appeal of a Goodwill on the North Trail that a group of residents felt was not compatible with the neighborhood.
But Harner said he still thinks Caragiulo is doing a good job focusing on the city’s financial health.
Harner said despite their differences on the Goodwill case, he will continue to support Caragiulo’s efforts with the elected mayor — a change he said would bring vision and accountability to the city.
“He is very determined when he gets into something,” Harner said about Caragiulo, “like a dog with a bone. That’s a compliment.”
Caragiulo's top concerns
• Downtown sound ordinance/entertainment district
• Increasing the city’s tax base
• More affordable apartments for professionals
• Elected mayor proposal
• Studying the feasibility of a downtown streetcar