Members of the community have questioned the Flagstaff City Council’s commitment to sustainability and addressing climate change after the council voted against reappointing the chair of the sustainability commission.
In a close vote, the council decided against reappointing the commission's elected chair, Brian Petersen, who had served on the commission since 2016. Petersen also works as the director of the sustainable communities program at Northern Arizona University.
“We believe losing [Petersen] as chair of the sustainability commission is a substantial loss for our city,” two members of the sustainability commission, David McCain and Dara Marks-Marino, told the council on December 17.
“At the very least it raises doubts about your commitment to create sustainability in general and to address climate change in particular,” McCain said.
Councilmember Charlie Odegaard, who had voted against reappointing Petersen, disagreed.
“We are very committed to sustainability and doing whatever we can to mitigate climate change,” Odegaard said.
The council’s vote followed a 30-minute discussion away from public eyes in executive session.
Commission members who are up for reappointment and want to remain on the commission are generally retained, but not in this case.
The vote broke down 4-3 with only Councilmembers Austin Aslan and Jamie Whelan and Vice Mayor Adam Shimoni supporting Petersen’s reappointment. Mayor Coral Evans and Councilmembers Odegaard and Regina Salas all wanted to remove him.
Councilmember Jim McCarthy was unsure of where he stood on the decision and hoped to postpone the vote. But in the end, McCarthy voted to remove.
Aslan, who acts as the council’s liaison to the sustainability commission, said while he accepted that the majority had spoken, Petersen was more than qualified and would be missed.
Evans did not respond to request for comment before publication, but Odegaard said he voted against reappointing Petersen because of a disagreement over the city’s transportation tax that voters passed in 2018.
When the council was debating whether to put the tax on the ballot, Petersen, as chair of the sustainability commission, said the tax was not in line with the city’s sustainability goals and they should go back to square one.
Petersen pointed to how nearly all of the $300 million the tax would generate would go to car-related infrastructure, even though the city’s goal is to see fewer residents driving in the future. He added that the process in which the tax was created had largely excluded discussions of climate change and sustainability.
But Odegaard said he felt Petersen’s request to simply start over devalued the hard work of the citizens commission, which had devised the transportation tax.
“That recommendation from Mr. Peterson, of just throwing [the planned tax] away and just for us to start all over again, I thought wasn’t very thoughtful. So that still resonates in me,” Odegaard said, adding that on any issue, there is only so much the city can do.
“Any councilmember, commission member, anybody, we always want to do more. And that’s good and usually we can do more, but at some point we have to be realistic with ourselves with the available resources we have,” Odegaard said.
For his part, Petersen said while he was not altogether surprised by the council’s decision, it was disheartening. He agreed he had strongly pushed the council on the transportation tax but said that is the role of the commissions.
Petersen said he was advising council on what to do before they came to their own decision on the transportation tax. Commissions are not simply a rubber stamp, he said.
“It was uncomfortable for city council, it led to tension and that is precisely what should be happening all the time. All of this is incredibly contentious,” Petersen said. “I was not reappointed because I was doing something right.”
Petersen added the city has set a massive challenge in the Climate Change Action and Adaptation Plan, a challenge it is not going to meet without the council actively and enthusiastically working toward it.
“The fact is, there are cities all across this country and the world who have climate action plans and almost none of them are meeting their goals. This city has very ambitious climate action goals and there is absolutely no possibility we can meet those goals with the status quo,” Petersen said.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on Twitter @AdrianSkabelund.
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