Office of Sustainability and Environment: Response from Richard Conlin

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As I mentioned in Monday's post about the City Council proposal to cut resources (or dissolve entirely) the Office of Sustainability and Environment, I sent a letter to Council President Richard Conlin requesting more explanation.

I am reprinting Mr. Conlin's thoughtful response below, with his permission:

Dear Julia,
Thanks for the message about OSE. As you may know, I worked for two years to create the Office of Sustainability and Environment, and my commitment to sustainability is the basis for the work I do. I am not advocating for a cut in OSE funding and I don't think that the proposed reorganization is likely to go forward.
However, there are two good reasons that I was willing to let this get on the table, and that I would consider it if there were future needs for cutting the budget as the economy deteriorates.
First, the proposed reorganization would eliminate only the Director and Public Information Officer (PIO) positions -- the substantive work on climate change and the urban forest would be transferred to other Departments. Much of the other work that was originally in OSE, such as sustainable infrastructure, green building, and sustainable urban development, has already been moved out to the line Departments. The PIO is currently detached to the Mayor's office, so this position is effectively vacant and not doing the work of OSE. While losing the Director would cost some focus, there are plenty of other staff positions in the Mayor's office and the Office of Policy and Management who could pick up this work if it is given priority. We are searching for ways to consolidate administrative positions throughout the City in order to maintain vital services and meet the increased need for housing, food, and human services that we are already seeing in the City as a result of the economic downturn. The budget situation right now requires that we consider a range of options in order to get to a balanced budget that does not eliminate any important programs or human services.
The second reason is a bit more of a challenge to conventional thinking. When we created this Office, it was clear that there was a real need for a voice for sustainability in City circles, and to seek to infuse it into all of the operations of the City. We are succeeding. At some point, as we get more and more Departments adopting sustainability as their guiding principle, having a separate department may actually be not only unnecessary, but actually represent a marginalization of the concept. We don't want any Department to think that they are absolved from the responsibility for advancing sustainability because it's the job of that office over there.
Hope this has clarified what is happening, and why I am not personally alarmed at the introduction of some out-of-the-box thinking about my turf. Happy to discuss this with you further if need be, but since it is not likely to be an issue in this budget process, not really necessary.
Council President Richard Conlin
Seattle City Hall

Regarding the second point, I personally agree that having every department throughout our city government incorporate sustainability principles into their work is the best ultimate goal. But I would argue that it is far too early to expect so much. Given the immediate opposition from leading Seattle activists following the proposal's announcement, I'm not sure that we're yet at a point where all departments, or the public confidence, are ready to take over in the absence of a prominent central OSE. But it seems from Mr. Conlin's letter that we will not have to make this choice in the immediate future.

"Sustainability" is a buzzword on the lips of politicians, activists and businesspeople around the country, and it has arguably become a household word. But I think it's important that we don't take too much for granted, because even with many people talking about sustainability, there has been too little done to create a society that is actually sustainable, particularly here in the United States. (For a very timely announcement on the pressing need for global action, see today's post on our global two-planet footprint.)

Photo credit: flickr/jdmx, Creative Commons license.