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Former mayor for a month James Smith named Council Chief of Staff


Former mayor for a month James Smith has yet again found a long-term home at City Hall, this time as chief of staff for City Council, a job he’ll start January 24.

Smith submitted an application for the position in December as his one month mayoral tenure came to a close. Among the internal applications Council received, Smith’s rose to the top of the pile, and rather than looking to hire externally, Council President Miguel Meléndez opted to hire Smith.

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized how uniquely positioned I am at this point in my career to make, I think — and I’m happy that City Council thought so as well – a good fit in that role,” Smith said, in a phone interview.

City Council’s president typically appoints its chief of staff, though generally the president does so after closed-doors vote of approval from Councilmembers.

“We had a very small number of internal applicants, and they had been waiting since December to hear back,” Lupien said. “The president decided to interview internal candidates, and we were still talking about looking externally, but James had a majority support.”

Meléndez said Smith's experience in government will help embolden Council to become more dynamic in its legislative action.

"We went through the process, we had some ideas of things we wanted to change, and we thought James brought some experience and skills from his background in communications, to working in various levels of government before, to his most recent role of being deputy mayor," Meléndez said. "...We also want to be more legislatively active, and we think James can help us put together some processes and policies to do that."

Smith, 52, has been a fixture in local politics for over a decade. A long-time Republican operative, he for a time served as deputy county executive to County Executive Maggie Brooks and an aide to House Rep. Tom Reed.

He switched parties in 2015, registering as a Democrat, and joined Mayor Lovely Warren’s administration as her chief spokesperson.

In 2019, he was elevated to deputy mayor. He became mayor in December 2021 after Mayor Lovely Warren resigned. She agreed to step down at the start of the month as part of a plea deal she accepted to resolve felony campaign finance violations. Smith automatically became mayor when she resigned, as outlined by the city’s succession plan.

His term was historic, both because of its brief duration and because he was the first openly gay mayor of Rochester.

Moving to Council, Smith sees the opportunity to work with a diverse, politically-charged legislative body.

“I think there are some incredibly talented folks on City Council and, I think, make collectively for what will be an activist City Council,” Smith said. “It’s one that I think will be a strong partner with the mayor.”

“It’s an exciting time, I think this is going to be a more activist City Council and a more active City Council,” Smith continued.

Salary for the City Council chief of staff starts at $114,067, but ranges up to $147,239 depending on several factors.

Correction: A previous version story of this story noted a 5-4 vote on Smith's hiring. There was no formal vote on his appointment. His hiring was at the discretion of Melendez.

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