Every system has its deficiencies. In Wellesley’s case, oftentimes these systematic deficiencies emerge when it comes to putting thought to sustainability in governmental decisions. When the Town recently entered renewed negotiations with Comcast, elected officials neglected to pursue more energy efficient set-top boxes in their discussions, despite receiving suggestions to do so. Similarly, a recent proposal for conversation surrounding the installation of solar canopies at the high school lost its momentum and remains idle and without engagement. In both of these cases and many others, the call for sustainability was cast aside.
Luckily, a solution to this consideration deficit was put on the table in a proposal for a new Environmental Affairs Division that was taken up by the Sustainable Energy Committee and the Natural Resources Commission. The proposal suggested that the Sustainable Energy Committee (SEC), Natural Resources Commission (NRC) and Wetlands Protection Committee (WPC) be grouped into a new “Environmental Affairs Division” with a top-level director that would report to the Town Director/Administrator/Manager. Ideally, the proposed change would be incorporated into the recommendation to be filed by the Town Government Study Committee (TGSC) on September 8.
The reasons that such a proposal should be given serious consideration are aplenty. First and foremost, collecting all the Town commissions and committees that deal specifically and solely with sustainability-oriented issues makes obvious sense. As exemplified by the wild success of this year’s 3R Working Group, a joint initiative that paired up the SEC and NRC to pursue improvement in local waste management processes, the missions of the SEC, NRC and WPC frequently overlap. Pooling financial and staffing resources in a single department devoted to sustainability would strengthen the efforts of all three.
Unifying these three groups into one with a “cabinet-level” director that reports directly to the Town’s central authority figure (a Town Manager, as proposed by the TGSC) would also have a beneficial impact in terms of sustainability by raising it to the forefront of Town decision-making. The “EA Director” would be able to advocate sustainability issues at the highest level of Town government and be able to work with other departments’ directors to ensure their efforts are harmonized with the Town’s sustainability goals. Similar models to this are embraced in a number of neighboring municipalities, as well as at the state level with the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, with both the municipalities and the state report great success through those models.
A counter-argument was put forth in response to the proposal that suggested creating such a division would have an isolating effect on the role of sustainability in Town decision-making. Such concerns can be easily rectified by incorporating language that references sustainable responsibility in the job descriptions of Town leaders and employees as well as the mission statements and responsibilities of all departments, committees and commissions.
Nevertheless, despite the plethora of reasons that a proposal such as this should be adopted, the TGSC flatly rejected proposal for consideration of a “Environmental Affairs Division” in favor of incorporating the aforementioned entities into the committee’s proposed Land Use Division. Understandably, the goal of the TGSC is to reduce the hindrance to progress created by the Town’s currently-siloed government structure. But incompatibly integrating the groups responsible for sustainability and conservation into a division purposed under the title of “land use” in a town where much of the government views undeveloped land as land that must be developed is a dangerous move which could compromise the ability of those entities focused on sustainability to execute their own missions.
With the TGSC entering the final months of its work, it is crucial that a longer, more thorough and focused discussion on the role of environmental stewardship in town government take place. A process of governmental reorganization should be viewed as an opportunity to increase the role of sustainability in Town processes, not reduce it. But left unattended, its reduction could be exactly what happens.