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County council considering new climate-focused department

  • Mon Jun 28th, 2021 1:30am
  • News

by Minor Lile, Contributor

As the San Juan County Charter Review Commission continues to refine and prepare the amendments it will eventually submit for voter approval, the County Council is considering its own response to some concerns raised during the review process.

At their June 15 meeting, the council expressed support for creating a new Environment and Climate Department following a presentation from County Environmental Resources Manager Kendra Smith. the new department would have overall responsibility for managing and enforcing environmental regulations and responding to the challenges of a changing climate. This approach differs from the Charter Review Commission which is backing a proposed amendment to the County Charter establishing an Office of Climate and Environment, headed by an independently elected director.

If approved by the Council, this department would replace the Environmental Resources Division, currently within the Public Works Department. Smith’s presentation also included recommendations that would create a citizens’ advisory group and a compliance officer responsible for the enforcement of environmental laws and regulations, with the latter requiring staff restructuring.

All three Council members expressed their support for the proposed restructuring. Councilmember Cindy Wolf said, ‘what we’ve heard from the Charter Review Commission and our own department heads is that there’s a lot of urgency around issues of ecology and climate change. The approach that’s being put forward today is a systemic approach (that is reflective of) a cultural shift that’s going on within the county. And rather than tearing up what we’ve been doing and creating a knight in shining armor or hero if you will, what this does is spend the public money in a way that … encourages everybody within the county to do as much as we can to restore and improve our environment.” Wolf later added, “I think this is a great response to the concerns that have been raised over the past couple of months and a great way to showcase what we do as a county and where there are opportunities for improvement.

Christine Minney was inspired by Smith’s presentation. “I see that this will create the visibility that (the) department deserves based on work already done and also work that you would like to see done.” Jamie Stephens added, “I like this approach. As Cindy said, it’s a programmatic approach to all these parts of what you’re doing, and it allows the flexibility to change as times may dictate.”

The Council agreed to take the topic up for possible action at their next meeting, June 29. In a possible reference to the CRC, Councilmember Minney suggested the interim would provide for additional conversations that could be part of a larger conversation.

The Council also learned from Deputy Prosecutor Amy Vira that proposed charter amendments and recommendations from the CRC must be received and forwarded to the county auditor by August 3. The CRC has not yet determined precisely when they will provide their findings to the council.

Although there are no specific proposals in mind, at Vira’s suggestion the Council kept open the possibility of offering their own amendments to the Charter by scheduling a public hearing for July 13.

A recording of the entire June 15 Council meeting is available at https://www.sanjuanco.com/903/Council-Agendas-and-Video, with Smith’s presentation and subsequent Council discussion beginning at about the 47:00 mark.

The prospect of the County Council taking up the idea of establishing a new Climate and Environment Department was discussed at the June 16 Charter Review Commission meeting.

Commission Chair Kevin Ranker said that “the Council discussion is an exciting recognition of our work.” Ranker said he had already “heard from ‘many people’ that the Council’s approach may not provide the department with sufficient autonomy to do the strong work that is needed.” “I think they are coming at it from a different perspective,” the CRC chair added. “Maybe they’re hearing from different constituencies than we are. My hope is that we can work together and listen to each other to figure out how we can move forward in a really positive way.”