Monday, June 15, 2009

Portland may seek leader for all things 'green'

A plan calls for hiring a full-time coordinator of sustainability efforts
By JOHN RICHARDSON, Staff Writer June 3, 2009

Portland's parks and trails have helped the city earn a reputation as an earth-friendly place.

Now some city officials and others want Portland to hire its first full-time sustainability coordinator to help make it a truly "green" community.

The coordinator would be responsible for reducing energy use and other environmental impacts, and the position initially would be backed with federal stimulus funds. City Councilor David Marshall, chairman of Portland's Energy and Environmental Sustainability Committee, plans to propose the new position at the June 15 council meeting.

The idea also has the support of other city officials, and it was a top recommendation by students from the Muskie School of Public Service who recently compared Portland's environmental efforts with those in other U.S. cities.

"There's opportunities for Portland to really establish itself as a sustainable community, and if we want to do that, the sustainability coordinator is the next step," said Kristel Sheesley, a graduate student and one of the researchers.

The students found that a coordinator could help make a long list of changes, from expanding community gardens to keeping dog waste and other pollutants out of Back Cove and Casco Bay.

Sustainability coordinators are now common in large corporations, universities and a growing number of cities, and are typically energy-conservation experts.

Marshall's committee wants to hire the coordinator for three years using part of a $684,000 energy-conservation block grant that the city expects to receive over the next few months. The City Council would decide whether to keep the position at the city's expense after three years, and Marshall said he's confident that reduced energy costs and reduced waste in other areas would more than cover the annual expense of the job.

If the full council approves the proposal this month, the coordinator could be hired this summer, officials said.

"There's always room for improvement in this area. In Portland, and every other city in this country, we have a very, very long way to go," Marshall said. "The sustainability coordinator is a key ingredient."

Overseeing Portland's energy-conservation efforts and environmental programs is now part of the job of the city's solid waste director, Troy Moon, and Moon and Marshall's two-year-old sustainability committee has been making progress, advocates say.

Last month, the city adopted energy-efficiency standards for new city-owned or city-financed buildings, for example. And a contractor is due to report back to the city this month after reviewing the energy use and conservation potential in more than 50 existing city-owned buildings.

Portland also has increased investment in reducing sewage discharges during rainstorms and is trying to encourage more alternative transportation. On Tuesday, for example, the city announced the designation of 31 new downtown parking spaces for motorized scooters and motorcycles.

"There's a lot of this stuff going on – it just needs to be expanded," said Sheesley, one of the Muskie students who studied Portland's green potential as part of a Sustainable Communities Seminar last semester.

The students interviewed local experts in a variety of areas, such as alternative energy and water quality, and compared Portland with other cities. It presented its recommendations to Marshall's sustainability committee last month.

"The common thread seemed to be for a city of its size, Portland seems to be taking a lot of steps in the right direction. At the same time, there's a lot of room for improvement," Sheesley said.

The students' recommendations ranged from getting better prepared for climate change and rising sea levels, to simply providing more waste containers near walking trails so dog owners have an easier time cleaning up after their pets. Dog waste frequently finds its way into local bodies of water.

Sheesley's own research team focused on local foods and recommended that Portland turn more city land into community gardens, among other things.

"There's a strong demand for locally produced food in Portland," she said.

The Muskie students all agreed that the city needs a full-time person devoted to energy and environmental efforts.

"Other cities around the country have positions like that. It seems to work well," Sheesley said.

Fred Padula, a Portland activist, also said the city has much work to do. One official with real authority could change wasteful practices throughout government and expand the effort into the community by helping residents take advantage of energy-efficiency programs, he said.

"You give (the coordinator) a couple of years, and if he can't save as much energy costs to the city as his salary costs, then he's not doing a good job," Padula said.

Adding a new city-financed position would be a tough sell given the city's financial condition, but the availability of federal grant money makes it much more appealing, said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., chairman of the Finance Committee.

"I think it makes sense provided this grant money is available," Mavodones said. "The money's out there and I think it would be prudent for us to take advantage of it."

Mavodones said the city could then decide in three years whether to keep the coordinator. "I'd like to think the position would more than pay for itself, but we'd have to analyze that," he said.

Moon said there are plenty of ways to reduce environmental impact and save money.

The new position "would definitely be a big help," he said. "In terms of what we're trying to accomplish there'll be no lack of things to do."

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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