Miguel Meléndez, a ‘collaborator,’ takes the helm of City Council 

click to enlarge Miguel Meléndez now serves as the Rochester City Council's president.


Miguel Meléndez now serves as the Rochester City Council's president.

Roughly 20 minutes after Miguel Meléndez was sworn in for his first full-term on City Council, he was elected by his colleagues as the body’s president.

Typically the post goes to an experienced Council member. For example, Meléndez’s predecessor, Loretta Scott, began her term as president in 2014 as she entered her second term. Before she became mayor, Lovely Warren assumed the president post after holding her Council seat for three years.

But Meléndez has cultivated a reputation as a collaborator in his capacity as the chief community engagement officer for Ibero-American Action League and a longtime advocate for the neighborhoods around North Clinton Avenue.

The other eight members of the Council, who are sometimes sharply divided on major issues, unanimously elected him their leader. Keeping in step with their divisions, however, the Council named their vice president, Mary Lupien, in a 5-4 vote.

“I probably wasn’t 100 percent in until around September or October, and then I started making my rounds to Councilmembers,” Meléndez said. “...I wanted to share with everyone that my feeling is that I would be one to help unite the body.”

Meléndez, 35, was appointed to Council in September 2020 to fill the seat left vacant by Jackie Ortiz when she was appointed Monroe County Democratic elections commissioner.

He assumed office amidst turmoil that would only worsen over time.

Three weeks before he was sworn in, news of the death of Daniel Prude at the hands of Rochester police had touched off near daily protests around the city. A month later, Warren was indicted on felony campaign finance charges.

In the ensuing months, an outside investigation commissioned by Council into the city’s handling of Prude’s death concluded the mayor and former Police Chief La’Ron Singletary had attempted to cover up Prude’s death, again resulting in harsh criticism of city government.

On top of that, Warren faced gun and child endangerment charges related to her estranged husband’s alleged involvement in a cocaine trafficking ring. She would ultimately agree to resign a month early to resolve all the charges against her.

The succession of scandals rocked public faith in City Hall. When asked how he might help rebuild that trust, Meléndez let out a brief sigh before responding.

“There’s a lot of things, and there’s going to be a commingling of approaches to fixing them as well,” he said. “How do we make ourselves, and some of the things we vote on, more accessible? How do we get more public engagement on legislation that might be controversial? What more can we be doing from a communications standpoint?”

Meléndez’s ascension to president happened as former Councilmember Malik Evans assumed the Mayor’s Office. Each framed their campaigns last year around the concept of “building bridges.”

Meléndez grew up in the city’s northeast and attended East High School. At the age of 15, his father, who he looks to as a profound influence on his life, died. From a young age, Meléndez was drawn to work in community service, a drive which brought him to Ibero upon graduating from St. John Fisher College with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in philosophy.

Evans, who served on Council with Meléndez, called him “humble” and “a collaborator,” two traits he said will serve the president well. “

Going forward, Meléndez will have to bridge some deep divisions. For example, two new Council members, Kim Smith and Stanley Martin, have been vocal critics of the Police Department while members Willie Lightfoot and Jose Peo are avowed supporters of law enforcement.

“It’s going to take a lot of work, and it’s always tough,” Evans said. “I’ve been in that position before where you have to bridge the gap, it’s easier said than done.You have to keep working at it, and he strikes me as the type that really wants to do that.”

click to enlarge Meléndez is a longtime advocate with Ibero-American Action League. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Meléndez is a longtime advocate with Ibero-American Action League.
Those who know Meléndez, including Ibero-American Action League President Angelica Perez-Delgado, believe he’s up to the task.

“One of the first things I noticed about Miguel is he’s a great listener,” said Perez-Delgado, who has known him for six years. “His ability to bring people together, to really work towards solving problems, is just amazing. And he did that between the neighborhood and the city, between the neighborhood and police. There’s always tension between them, and Miguel is just a great convener.”

In 2012, Meléndez launched Project HOPE, an acronym for Healthy Outcomes through Participation, Education and Empowerment. It was a plan to address marijuana dealing in the Clifford and Conkey neighborhood. The goal was to guide young pot dealers into legal employment. He later launched a second program, Community, Law Enforcement & Assistance Network (Project CLEAN), which aims to combat opioid abuse.

As president, he said he is prioritizing addressing the opioid epidemic and overdose rates in the city. He’s also focused on public safety following a year of record violence and on housing issues. He is particularly concerned about displacement driven by the pandemic and the end of the state’s eviction moratorium.

Meléndez, who has three children, plans to continue to work at Ibero while president. The Council president has a fixed salary of just shy of $47,000, roughly $10,000 more than Council members.

Despite the heavy workload, he feels capable of finding a balance.

“I think it’s just recalibrating, because I’m a workaholic,” Meléndez said. “I spend, I probably shouldn’t be admitting this, but 70 to 80 hours working or thinking about stuff related to City Council or Ibero. Sometimes more. And so my commitment and my flexibility on both sides of the house allows me to be present in both spaces.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or [email protected].

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