Thursday, June 06, 2013

After Six Months of Limbo, the City should Renew and Support its Environmental Commission

Six months after the Ferndale Environmental Sustainability Commission asked the City Council to renew its existence and give support for its mission, the group remains in limbo, with more than half its members having resigned or stopped coming to meetings. An organization that proudly served the city for more than a decade was put off, ignored, and made to be felt like an unwanted stepchild. While it apears that the City may finally get around to rewriting the ordinance creating the commission, there is no doubt that the commission has suffered in spirit and credibility.

I helped found the Ferndale Environmental Sustainability Commission more than eleven years ago, when Bob Porter was mayor and I was a relatively new City Councilman. The idea was to create a city sponsored group - an official commission - that would advise the city on emerging environmental policies and green issues, and advocate and educate the city staff, its elected leaders, and residents on ways to make our city more sustainable, more cost-effective, and more ecologically sound. Volunteers jumped at the chance to sit on the commission, and at one point we even had to expand the number of members, as people wanted to join and help.

The group helped craft policies and positions on transportation and mass transit, energy efficiency, and complete streets. It advocated for and got installed more bicycle lanes and bike racks. It helped set the stage for greener buildings such as the Ferndale library and educated the citizenry with monthly green tips. We held workshops on composting and mulching, on greener holiday decorations, ways to reduce water usage, and tree planting. It promoted urban agriculture and its members helped get the first community gardens going in our town. It hosted for many years the Ferndale Green Week around World Earth Day in April each year.

In the summer of 2012, we began asking the city for more input into our activities, as the group was beginning to feel ignored and adrift. We asked that a city staff person be assigned to work with us or to serve as a liaison, as we had had for many years prior. The group felt its ideas and recommendations were not being heard or even not wanted by the city. In our reviewing the ordinance that created the group back around 2001, it was noticed that the commission had "sunset", meaning that its existence under the ordinance had expired after ten years. We approached the City Council and asked to be renewed in early December.

Over the past six months, the city has "extended" the commission's ordinance twice, adding first 90 and then 120 days until a promised resolution. Our City Council member liason actually told us in March that more time was needed because "we are totally immersed in the new parking system and we can't focus on other issues right now." By May, the once proud commission of a dozen members was reduced to one or two people coming to meetings, or having meetings cancelled for lack of attendance.

While there are not many subjects more important to me than protecting the environment, I also finally resigned from the commission last month. Volunteers help make Ferndale the great town that it is, but volunteers have to be accepted, embraced, and appreciated, and their time should be useful.
Most of us want our city to be as green as it can be, but the past year shows the need for a wake up call. Whether it is a growing bureaucracy, lack of appreciation, inability to multi-task, or inefficiency, some things need to change. The Ferndale Environmental Sustainability Commission was and is an important and valuable asset to our city government, and it's ordinance should be finalized and voted on and renewed without delay by the City Council.
New and additional members should be sought and put to work so that Ferndale can continue to say that it is a green town and that it cares about sustaining our Earth.