It's Not Easy Being Green

The city's Office of Sustainability is still trying to find a sustainable mission

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Wish Upon a STAR

That concept – of the difficulty of achieving sustainability – may also be the toughest sell for Athens. After all, as the Chief Sustainability Officer of a city whose green reputation nets it cultural cachet, press, and jobs, it's not exactly easy serving as the voice of caution, a role that Athens seems to find herself playing at least some of the time. That goes especially when you are applying said caution to the image you've been hired to promote, one so central to the city's identity.

Many of the troubles associated with the most recent version of official Austin sustainability go back to its origin story – or at least the origin story recalled by Paul Rob­bins. Robbins takes credit for the idea that eventually led to a Chief Sustainability Officer. "The Sustainability Office, in one sense, was entirely my idea, but it evolved for a different reason," he says. In the run-up for the May 2009 election*, Robbins and a group of environmentalists were sitting around a table coming up with questions for an environmentally focused candidate forum. Robbins says he brought up the idea of a need for an independent environmental office – "the way things used to be in the Nineties," he says, referring to the city's former Planning, Environ­ment­al, and Con­ser­vation Services Department. It was an independent entity within the city structure that corralled portions of Austin's energy, water, land development review, and solid waste departments into one, presustainability fiefdom. Roger Duncan was its director, but it disappeared in the late Nineties.

Robbins says the issue became a candidate question; then it became a campaign promise; the next year, in the person of Athens, a reality. But apparently not the reality Robbins envisioned. "After the election, it morphed from a Sustainability [Department] to a Sustainability Officer." The difference can be structurally important; a department carries with it Robbins' implication of independent watch-doggedness, and the theoretical power that goes with it. As it turned out, the Sustainability Officer, Athens, was attached directly to City Manager Marc Ott's office, under the authority of Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards, in principle as a peer to department heads. And Robbins says that when he asked Athens to take on the mission of water conservation – what Robbins calls the prime motivator in his drive to create the new officer – Athens had "no desire" to adopt that program.

Athens says she thinks direct adoption would have been counterproductive. "I strongly believe that conservation-oriented programs should be organizationally aligned within the same departments where their focus lies," she explained. "Water conservation programs should be within water utilities, energy conservation programs should be located within energy utilities, etc. Removing such programs from the rest of the organization sends a message that conservation has nothing to do with service delivery." But she added that her office still monitors conservation progress. "Water conservation and long-term security of our water supply is a key component of the Sustainability Action Agenda, and a key area of concern for the Office of Sustain­a­bil­ity. We communicate and coordinate with Austin Water Utility regularly, and track their sustainability-related activities, just as we do for many other departments."

With the sustainability concept crossing so many departmental lines, it could be viewed as essential for Athens to have the authority to push department heads when she faces resistance – as in the case of the Carbon Neutral Fleet Plan. But she doesn't have that authority, so it's up to her superiors to wield it.

I asked Athens if her bosses provide sufficient authority to push for what she believes needs to be done. She paused briefly before answering. "I think that we have a tremendous asset in the department directors that we have leading the enterprise departments – all the different departments," she said. "There is a tremendous spirit of collaboration, I think, within city government here and an openness to talking about new ideas. I think part of the key, though, is my office does not have all of the answers. A lot of these departments, they're innovating on their own, without necessarily even coming to talk to my office. So all of this doesn't have to flow through us."

That raises the corollary question: If the departments are capable of achieving sustainability on their own, does the city even need a Sustainability Office? Council Mem­ber Riley, caught between meetings, offered a quick, "Yes, the city needs a Sustainability Office" as he flew out his office door. Spelman wouldn't comment for the record.

Edwards argues that Athens' managerial placement makes sense. "The City Manager made a very conscious choice in locating the Office of Sustainability within the City Manager's Office," she wrote in an email. "This sends a clear signal that the sustainability mission comes from the top. The Office of Sustainability collaborates with each department, finding creative ways to integrate sustainability practices into their respective service models. As a result, each department works individually towards the common goal of advancing the City's sustainability mission. The role of the Sus­tain­a­bility Office is to be the central point of coordination for those efforts." Edwards adds encouragingly, "In the short time that the Office of Sustainability has existed, it has been quite successful." Yet some on City Hall's second floor continue to wonder why Athens doesn't offer more frequent updates to Council about the office's progress. The community at large, it appears, could also benefit from a better picture of what, exactly, is going on in Sustain­abil­ity.

Meanwhile, everyone could soon get the sort of measurement they're looking for: Athens will apply the STAR Community Index (Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating Communities, a voluntary matrix for rating sustainability efforts) to the city's Sustainability Program. It's "still in its early stages," Athens said, "but part of the desire with the STAR Index was to create a common benchmarking tool, kind of like LEED did for building, so that you could compare yourself to how other projects and in this case how other cities were doing. ... Once that's really up and running, I think that's going to provide a tool for cities to compare themselves to one another."

Riley provided a positive spin for the cost-benefit analysis question. "I think at some point we need to step back and take a look at the program and see whether the benefits we're getting from the office could justify greater investment – and that may well be the case; I don't know at this point," he said. "There are so many city interests at stake in sustainability issues; there may well be a good reason to expand the office. We can't do that without having a good handle on exactly what we're getting out of it, and I'm not sure we're at that point yet." The eventual implication, however, could also be that the program could require less.

"The time we generally look at each office and look at performance measures is budget season," Riley says. Budget season, which is gearing up in a few weeks, is also the annual moment when Riley and his colleagues get set to redistribute city funds. One question they will certainly be asking themselves: How sustainable is the Office of Sustainability?

*In the run-up to the May 2009 elections [date corrected from original version]

GRAPH SOURCE: Office of City Auditor analysis of data provided by Fleet Services (unaudited) in January 2013

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