GRANOLAPARK: The Sustaininator

TFEA report


Dear Readers,

Takoma Park’s new councilmembers want a sustainability coordinator and they want it now! Freshly seated and not yet saddle-sore, they are spurring the rest of the council into a gallop – aimed right at the high hurdle. Not a steady gallop, however.

Local environmentalists have been clamoring for a sustainability coordinator since the city’s Task Force on Environmental Action strongly recommended the city create such a staff position. A sustainability coordinator – or “sustaininator” for short – would, among other things, shrink the city’s carbon footprint, they say.

The house of usher

For over a year the old council slowly ushered the issue close to the point of actually hiring someone. At first they put it off due to budget worries (which stil lurk in the closet), and when they finally decided that, ok, maybe, just maybe, they could afford it now, questions and doubts came up that made it clear this was not an easy or quick thing to do.

The overall problem they encountered is what we here at Granolapark Industries like to call “reality.” See, if you come up with a great idea and a vision of how Everything Will Work Out, that’s not reality, that’s called “dreaming.” In reality, things are likely to Not Work Out. Unfortunately, trying to plan for things Not Working Out, leads to paralysis, because there’s no end to things that might Not Work Out.

For example, one of the assumptions made by advocates is that the sustaininator would PAY FOR HIM- OR HERSELF. The energy savings, and the grants he/she would bring in could equal the sustaininator’s salary, of course. Of course! As new councilmember Seth Grimes put it at the Jan. 9 city council meeting, the sustaininator would “mine resources” to find funding.

Yeah, well, that’s not how it always works. Gee, said Mayor Bruce Williams to city manager Barbara Matthews, that sounds familar, didn’t we once have a staff grants coordinator around here? And, the city manager replied, why yes, we did have one in the community development and planning office. It turns out that just because you have someone whose job is to apply for grants, it doesn’t mean you’re going to actually get the grants. Gee, I miss that guy, he used to bring in donuts every Monday.

The freshmen councilmembers looked up from their laptops. Did you say something about donuts? Oh, never mind, let’s get on with this!

Oh, just call it a “five year plan!”

But, even they were soon up to their knees in viscous doubts. The list of things a sustaininator might do is long and varied. So varied that, as staff and veteran councilmembers keep pointing out, they will never find one individual with such a range of skills. The list includes conducting a city-wide green-house gas inventory and forming a public/private partnership to purchase all the utility poles in the city.

The list is all the stuff the task force wanted to see done, but for the most part, there is no rationale or organizing principal behind the list. It is just a list of stuff task force members had on their minds. They assigned relative values to list items in an effort to prioritize them, and called it a “five year plan,” but it’s not as though the list was complied by an expert who knew the best way to green-up the city. Hence, the task force’s strong recommendation that the city hire an expert (that word keeps popping up) .

Expert quandry

It’s a conundrum. The city needs an expert (see?)  to shrink the ol’ carbon footprint because the city doesn’t know how. To hire an expert the city needs a job description and a way to assess the expert’s progress. If only an expert knows how to go about it, how does the city come up with that description and assessment criteria?

AND, there are other issues, such as overworking the staff. As veteran councilmember Fred Schultz grumbled,”we’re good at finding things for the city [staff] to do!” The city may have set aside revenue to hire the sustaininator, he pointed out to the freshmen councilmembers, but none for a staff member’s time to administer the contract and evaluate the sustaininator’s work. And this, to come back to the point above, would have to be someone who knows the subject well enough to make a professional evaluation. If the city had such a person, it wouldn’t need a sustaininator!

Determinedly, the council waded through the muck to a point closer to firmer ground – maybe. A subcommittee including councilmembers Tim Male and Reuben Snipper is going to work on the wish list which will make up much of the sustaininator’s job description.

Male was strongly in favor of some of the more ambitious wish list items, forming public/private partnerships to help residents finance or get discounts on home energy-efficicency upgrades. Likely, that will figure strongly in the job description.

– Gilbert

About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.