Would a sustainability coordinator be ‘captain of the ship’?

Would a sustainability coordinator be ‘captain of the ship’?

Town envisions new employee to work under Planning Department

BRATTLEBORO — Some comments made during the Aug. 20 Selectboard meeting discussion over the hiring of a sustainability coordinator for the town point to a disconnect between the original vision of the Town Energy Committee for turning the work of a part-time appointed town official into a properly compensated staff position.

Some community members, it seemed, envision a sustainability coordinator who has broad authority to direct the Selectboard and staff on energy or sustainability actions, a vision that some proponents of the position have articulated for several years, according to a town official who briefed The Commons on some of the twists and turns that led to last week's decision.

As originally envisioned by members of the Town Energy Committee, a sustainability officer would have broad responsibility and authority over municipal concerns that touched on issues of energy conservation - and perhaps beyond [see main article].

But town staff have pointed out that such a position was not realistic and risked subverting the democratic process by essentially giving a sustainability officer more power than even the elected Selectboard.

So rather than the “captain of the ship” - a role as described by multiple people speaking at the meeting - the coordinator will become part of the Planning Department under the supervision of the planning director.

The coordinator will also participate in the town's senior management team, meeting regularly with the town manager along with department heads and some department deputies.

A new direction

In its motion, the board authorized town staff to develop a job description and begin the hiring process.

Town staff have already laid the groundwork. In the backup documents provided at the meeting, the staff included a position summary, an outline of duties.

For starters, the town staff - based on collaboration with the town energy committee and public input - went with a definition of “sustainability” that reaches beyond energy efficiency to include “long-term economic, environmental, and social equity considerations into Town Plans, actions, and expenditures.”

Some of the duties contained in the summary include:

• Implementing systems for tracking progress toward key sustainability milestones.

• Promoting actions that help the town equitably address climate change.

• Building capacity and relationships across all sectors, public and private.

• Keeping up to date on technological advancements that can make achieving sustainability milestones easier or less expensive.

A departure from previous efforts

In addition to expanding the definition of sustainability, a new coordinator would embody a departure from previous municipal funding of these efforts.

For starters, the coordinator would be a town employee.

Brattleboro has had a quasi-volunteer position of energy coordinator, a municipal role that was codified in Vermont statute in 1975, in the midst of the energy crises of that era.

According to the law, “An energy coordinator shall coordinate existing energy resources in the town and cooperate with the municipal planning commission and with those federal, State, and regional agencies of government which are responsible for energy matters.”

Such appointed officials “may study and evaluate sources of energy which are alternatives to those presently available with a view toward the more efficient and economical utilization of existing and potential energy resources.”

For approximately a decade, Paul Cameron, who operated a nonprofit called Brattleboro Climate Protection, also served as the energy coordinator.

To support Cameron and the town energy committee's work, members at Representative Annual Town Meeting authorized $10,000 for a number of years.

Those funds were disbursed to Brattleboro Climate Protection.

That appropriation continued after Cameron left the area a few years ago and the nonprofit went dormant.

Phoebe Gooding, then a graduate student, also served for a year as the energy coordinator in an arrangement similar to that of Cameron's. The $10,000 appropriation went to the Brattleboro Sustainable Energy Coalition.

According to Town Energy Committee minutes, Gooding resigned the position in March of 2018, citing extreme exhaustion and recommending that the town directly employ a sustainability officer.

After Gooding left, the conversations around establishing the position took off in earnest.

At the Aug. 20 Selectboard meeting, HB Lozito praised Gooding's efforts as a part-timer funded indirectly through an appropriation to a nonprofit.

“I'd like to remind us all that we did have a sustainability coordinator who was a paid person,” they said, describing Gooding as “a woman of color who was severely underpaid for any of the work that she was trying to do.”

Lozito imagined “what kind of different position would we be in right now two years later” and “how much more could she have done if she was actually funded to do the work that she was doing.”

“It's ridiculous to ask someone to do that kind of work for $10,000,” Lozito said. “We were very lucky.”

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