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City commission and Utility Advisory Board set next steps on creating Climate Change Officer position

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At the October 26 joint meeting between the Gainesville City Commission and the Utility Advisory Board, the two bodies discussed creating a Climate Change Officer position.

Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) General Manager Ed Bielarski said there are two aspects of the position: one is to communicate and educate and interact with the community “on a host of issues that utilities engage in, in terms of climate change… we are transforming the Office of Communication into an Office of Communication and Climate Change Initiatives… Immediately, we’re looking to make that change.” The second element is the “technical side of it: a person with a staff that can lead all the elements within the organization toward the climate change initiatives… So that’s a little harder at this point, and that will require some budgetary amendments.” 

Bielarski said the position would likely be located in Energy Supply. “I expect to come back with something more solid later on.”

City Commissioner Reina Saco was concerned about the budgetary implications of hiring a staff for the new Climate Change Officer: “I worry about the cost of that—one staff, four people… it’s not just salary, plus benefits, I don’t want this to become so costly… that the people say ‘Look, what are you actually saving us?’”

Mayor Lauren Poe said they should look to other organizations that have created similar positions to see how they “defend the value of that part of the organization. This is, at this point in time, nothing new or necessarily innovative… I have to think there’s a model out there… here’s how it works and why it works.”

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Bielarski said they need to “get the philosophy down first… There needs to be that funnel for all things Climate Initiative and climate valuation, with the impacts of climate change and what we can do as a utility… That leader within the organization is taking this information, looking at how it applies to the things we are doing, and funnels that out to the Communications Department… and in talking with Energy Supply, when we do the Integrated Resource Plan, ‘Have you considered these things or those things?’… Philosophically, we’ve got to change the way that information flows.”

UAB Member Wendell Porter asked Bielarski, “You’ve been at loggerheads several times on this issue of climate change with us, and now this person’s going to be working for you? Give me a warm and fuzzy that that’s not going to be a real contentious thing that doesn’t go anywhere… We need a good search for this.”

Bielarski pushed back: “You said that I’ve said that [zero greenhouse gases by 2045] is an unfunded mandate. It absolutely is! I mean, we could look at this today and say, you know, with the numbers we’ve seen, this will be billions of dollars in the future, so should we start collecting that money now, so that we have it when the time comes? But we’re not doing that. Should we do that? It’s not my decision.”

UAB Member Don Davis said they should talk about “who will be the primary person doing all the PR talking for GRU… We could use a PR person to do the talking because our administrator [Bielarski] has developed an editorial tone that is defensive, and it’s just not selling GRU… and we don’t have to go on the defensive, and we don’t have to do so many editorials in the paper. We could just answer a few questions in a simple manner and be way ahead… That’s what I’d like to see out of all this.”

UAB Chair Wes Wheeler said he “would encourage the city commission to seriously consider… hiring and creating a Sustainability Officer who reports to the city commission through the City Manager… I think it’s a great idea to have a public relations office coordinating what’s going on at GRU, but we have to be real careful here that this doesn’t come across as greenwashing… Dr. Porter mentioned that he and I both have had clashes with the General Manager, and we have a different take on how things are going to go forward environmentally, and I’d be a little concerned about having an environmental officer report to the head of the utility.”

City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said he liked that idea, and “it could be paid for out of the budgets, how much each department puts out in carbon… I would like to move that the GRU General Manager bring back a clear plan, a philosophy, what they would do and proposed budget changes before taking action.” City Commissioner Harvey Ward seconded the motion. Poe suggested putting that plan on their next joint meeting. He also suggested adding the Interim City Manager to those discussions, and he said it would be best if they brought back several options. 

The motion passed unanimously, with City Commissioner David Arreola absent.

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