On the second day of the new year, now-Council Member Julie Menin took to Twitter to announce that she and her 3-year-old daughter had COVID-19. “Not the way I wanted to start 2022 or my 1st week” representing District 5, she wrote. She’d be staying home, toddler in tow.
“For all the parents out there who have had to quarantine, particularly with a younger child ... it unfortunately is now the new normal,” she told Our Town. It’s not something she could have foreseen — but she adapted and powered through.
One week later, an unexpected turn in local events: A devastating apartment building fire, caused by a space heater, according to multiple reports, killed at least 19 in the Bronx. Menin — in collaboration with Community Board 8 and fellow Council Member Keith Powers, representing District 4 — sprung to action with the Bronx Fire Relief Drive, collecting donations of toiletries, toys, books, water bottles and gift cards to purchase food for impacted New Yorkers.
For Menin, responding quickly — often to the unanticipated — is part of the job she signed up for. Of course, she has longer-term goals, too, that can’t be achieved overnight, like introducing a new school to District 5, which primarily encompasses a large swath of the Upper East Side. But on all fronts, in only her early days as a newly-minted Council Member, Menin has “hit the ground running,” as she put it, with her team.
“I really focus on responsiveness,” she said. “We’re available 24/7.”
To better connect with her constituents face to face, with her quarantine days behind her, Menin has set her sights on a new office at 1470 First Avenue between East 76th Street and East 77th Street — one with a street-level retail space. “It’s really important that people can come in off the street and meet with myself and my team at any time,” Menin said. She’ll be moving into the new location in a matter of weeks.
In the meantime, she’s hitting the streets to accomplish a variety of tasks; to start, Menin and her team distributed at-home COVID-19 test kits and over 3,000 masks in a single week and are continuing the push at locations throughout her district. “COVID is top of mind for everyone,” she said.
For many small businesses, the pandemic has been particularly devastating. Supporting their recovery — a part of Menin’s platform since she began her race for City Council — will now be one of her foremost responsibilities as Chair of the Committee on Small Business, a position to which she was appointed on January 20.
Also on people’s minds — trash. In mid-January, Menin announced her allocation of $120,000 in the city’s fiscal year budget to increase litter basket pickups within CB8 from three times per day (and twice on Sundays) to four times per day on four days each week through the end of June. “We’ve been very, very happy to see all of these results in so short a time,” said CB8 Chair Russell Squire, who assumed the position in 2021.
Some of Menin’s other goals align with CB8’s three top priorities, which Squire describes as education, affordable housing and more public, open (and green) space. In the coming weeks, Menin plans to announce a new community garden in her district, a project she’s working on with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. She’s also vocal about wanting to open a new school in District 5, a process which she’s already set in motion.
“If anybody can do it, she can,” Squire said.
What Keeps Her Going
Much of Menin’s preparedness, she says, comes from her experience in prior roles; she was New York City’s 2020 Census Director, after having previously served as the Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Commissioner of Media and Entertainment and, for seven years, the Chair of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan.
In the case of opening a new school, Menin kicked off conversations with the New York City School Construction Authority in December, referencing her nearly 20-year working relationship with now-First Deputy Mayor Lorraine Grillo as an asset in getting the job done. “I will be expediting and bringing up the need for a new school to the highest levels of the administration,” Menin said.
Members of her staff, like Chief of Staff Jonathan Szott and Community Liaison William Yee, point to her past achievements as a reason for joining her team in the present. “She knows how to be effective and get things done,” Szott said.
Meetings held on a near-daily basis boost staff morale, according to Yee. “The environment we have in those meetings is very open-ended, always encouraging ideas, thoughts,” he said.
Menin has curated a staff of people with diverse backgrounds and prior experiences — Szott has formerly served as the Chief of Staff for Council Members Peter F. Vallone Jr. and Paul A. Vallone; Legislative and Budget Director Czareena Dotchev acted as the Director of Outreach for Senate Leader Chuck Schumer and is fluent in Tagalog; and Yee recently graduated from Columbia University, worked for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Adriano Espaillat and speaks Mandarin Chinese, to name a few.
Teamwork — especially with other elected officials — is a crucial part of the job. “It doesn’t necessarily matter which side of the street you live on,” said Council Member Powers, whose district abuts Menin’s. “We are all on a team to try to make sure that we improve the lives of people here on the East Side.”
For inspiration, Menin looked to her late mother, who lived in Hungary during the Holocaust, which claimed the life of Menin’s grandfather. Menin’s mother and grandmother moved to the East Side “to forge a better life.”
“I tell my kids all the time, what my mother and my grandmother and our family — and countless other families who made it through the Holocaust — lived through was truly horrific,” Menin explained. “And so I just have a motto of, I don’t tend to sweat the small stuff, I just don’t.”
Now, Menin views being a mother herself as bolstering her ability to tackle her new duties as Council Member — and she’s part of the city’s first-ever majority-women Council (with a number of fellow mothers in the mix). “Being a mother, you’re juggling a lot of different balls in the air,” Menin said. “Having so many women on the Council is a game-changer.”