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Toledo to revive environment panel

Board would advise Hicks-Hudson

  • Water-Quality-Voters

    Algae fouls the waters of Lake Erie in 2014 near the city of Toledo water intake near Curtice. Toledo moved to resurrect the three-decade-old Mayor’s Environmental Advisory Board late last month to combat problems like the toxic algae.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • n2rossMUG-jpg

    Paula Ross brought city business groups and green activists together in 1990.

  • n2algae-jpg

    Issues like the algae water crisis of 2014 have made the board relevant again.

    THE BLADE
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In an obscure chapter of municipal history, the Toledo City Council created a committee of business leaders and local volunteers to advise the mayor on environmental matters.

The date was May 29, 1990.

More than a quarter century later, the Mayor’s Environmental Advisory Board is a little-known relic of the city’s past — an age when recycling seemed like the answer to the world’s environmental problems. The advisory board last met in 2007. Hardly anyone remembers the board today, including many of the people who previously served on it.

But late last month, amid national debate over climate change and environmental regulation, the city moved to resurrect the three-decade-old initiative, circulating a news release that called on neighbors to join a handful of vacant boards and commissions, including the environmental advisory board.

“We are interested in getting that back going,” city spokesman Janet Schroeder said. “It’s certainly one of the mayor’s prime objectives — clean water, safe water. We’re hoping people are interested.”

The city’s push to revive the board comes a month after Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson pledged to fulfill the United States’ obligations under the Paris climate accord, joining a coalition of city leaders who are defying President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement.

RELATED: Toledo mayor pledges to uphold Paris climate deal

But despite her climate pledge, Ms. Hicks-Hudson has been criticized by local environmentalists who want Toledo to join the legal battle to declare Lake Erie an impaired watershed, a step the mayor has been unwilling to take.

The city circulated the news release less than a week after The Blade contacted local officials to inquire about the board’s history. Asked when the Mayor’s Office decided to revive the board, Ms. Schroeder said, “The mayor has had an ongoing interest in supporting environmental issues.”

Ms. Schroeder said later that staff had been discussing the environmental board and other boards for several months. The mayor is considering pitching an ordinance proposal to give the board a more modern focus, she said.

Board formed in ’90

The advisory board was conceived during a period of widespread environmental activism in 1990: the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, a nationwide celebration that made saving the planet “trendy, at least for a while,” said Paula Ross, who coordinated Toledo’s Earth Day festivities as area director for Ohio Citizen Action.

It emerged from conversations between Ms. Ross and Linda Waggon, then vice president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. 

The pair hoped to honor Earth Day by bringing together two groups more accustomed to conflict than collaboration: environmental activists and local business leaders.

“We just joked that people were going to be shocked to see us together, and we wondered which of us was going out on more of a limb,” Ms. Ross said. “We were on opposite ends of the spectrum of environment and business, but we could still work together.”

The ensuing council legislation, approved a month after Earth Day and signed by then-Mayor John McHugh, pledged to solve local environmental problems and to maintain “a healthy environment as well as a healthy economy.”

Nearly three decades later, neither the mayor’s office nor council has records documenting the board’s work, city officials said.

Interviews with former board members and a report the board submitted to council in 1996 offer a portrait of an active and ambitious local commission that sometimes had to battle for political influence.

In the early 1990s, the board adjudicated a long-running dispute between supporters and opponents of the Buckeye Basin Greenbelt Parkway, said Elliot Tramer, a former environmental science professor at the University of Toledo and the board’s inaugural chairman.

It also helped convince the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to raise Toledo’s air-quality rating, increased awareness about water-related issues, and successfully advocated for a zoning ordinance that paved the way for construction on former industrial sites, according to the 1996 report.

Reviewing environmental issues and getting them before council was not a common occurrence at the time, said Kurt Erichsen, a civic engineer who served on the board in the mid-1990s.

The report also details frustration with City Hall. It called for “more formal” communication with the mayor, and requested the city document its responses to board recommendations through follow up reports.

“It was a mixed bag,” Mr. Tramer said. “There were some things where we were [listened to] and some things where you said, ‘that wasn’t what they wanted to hear.’”

Leaders unimpressed

The board’s work did not make a lasting impression on city leaders over the decades.

Carty Finkbeiner — a councilman when the board was established and the mayor from 1994 to 2002 and 2006 to 2010 — said he does not remember meeting the board or reading its reports.

“It’s almost a cliche type of a name,” Mr. Finkbeiner said. “Who was the chairman?”

Mr. Finkbeiner is not alone in his fuzzy recollection. Most of the nine former members interviewed remembered little about the board, aside from the fact they once served on it.

“He couldn’t remember a meeting,” said a spokesman for Lucas County Commission President Peter Gerken, a board member in the early 2000s. “He has no recollection of that board.”

The board has been entirely vacant since 2007. It’s one of several bodies, including the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo and the Toledo Youth Commission, that will remain inactive unless the city recruits new members this summer.

Tom Kovacik, a former chief operating officer for the city who served on the board in the 2000s, said he “can’t explain” why the board is not more active now than it was in the past.

City Law Director Adam Loukx said he does not know why the board stopped meeting in the mid-2000s. But in recent years, he said, the city has struggled to keep many of its boards and commissions populated.

“There are only so many people who will volunteer,” Mr. Loukx said. “As time goes by, it’s harder and harder to get the people.”

Under former Mayor Mike Bell, the city officially disbanded several vacant boards and commissions, including the Toledo Athletic Commission and the Downtown Toledo Community Board.

As of early July, no one had applied to join the Mayor’s Environmental Advisory Board, Ms. Schroeder said. There have been applications to several other boards.

For Ms. Ross, whatever its ultimate fate — an unlikely revival or a place in the municipal dustheap — the board deserves to go down in city history as an example of evenhanded discussion during a partisan age.

“It was part of a long trend toward greater environmental awareness,” Ms. Ross said. “It was useful in helping us to establish working relationships between people with very different points of view. That’s always a good thing.”

Contact David Yaffe-Bellany at: dbellany@theblade.com, or 419-724-6050.

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