With 3 Key Leaders Departing, What Happens To City Environmental Policy?

Jul 12, 2019

Several top-level city staffers who oversee environmental policy in Charlotte are departing this month, at a time when City Hall is trying to focus on environmental issues.

Friday is the last day at work for Rob Phocas, who has been the city's sustainability director since 2010. He's taking a job as director of corporate responsibility at Charlotte software developer AvidXchange. It's also the last day for Phocas's boss, Assistant City Manager Kim Eagle, who is leaving to become Gaston County manager. And Gina Shell recently announced her retirement as deputy director of Engineering & Property Management. 

The three have been the core of the city's environmental policy efforts. They even earned a shout-out from City Council member Dimple Ajmera last December, before the council approved the Strategic Energy Action Plan, or SEAP. 

They're part of a big turnover among top city officials since Marcus Jones took over as city manager in 2016. 

The departures follow the March decision by Mayor Vi Lyles to eliminate the city council's stand-alone Environment Committee, a decision criticized by advocates for the environment. That policy is now handled in the Neighborhood Development Committee. 

IMPLEMENTING THE PLAN

All these changes come as staff discuss how to carry out the Energy Action Plan. 

That's an ambitious plan for both city government and the city as a whole. Here's how Phocas described it in December:  

"By 2030, our municipal buildings and fleet will be powered by zero-carbon energy. And then we have a goal for 2050 that the average Charlottean will be emitting less than two tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year," he said.

Right now, Americans emit about 15 tons of CO2 per capita every year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Phocas also oversees a $2.5 million grant the city won in December from the foundation of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The grant pays for two climate change advisers in the Sustainability Office run by Phocas, and includes consulting with outside experts hired by Bloomberg's foundation. 

REORGANIZATION AT CITY HALL

Meanwhile, Phocas says another factor in his departure is a recent city hall reorganization by City Manager Marcus Jones.  Instead of falling under the city manager's office, the Sustainability Office is now part of a new department called General Services. That includes fleet management, storm water and engineering and property management.

"There's a lot of change going on. It just seems like a good time to go," Phocas said. 

City officials say despite the departures, they're not pulling back from those plans. 

"I don't think anything is off-track, in terms of items that are in the SEAP. The SEAP is mostly about the government's commitment to their spending and the environment," said city spokesman Brent Kelly. 

Kelly pointed to Charlotte Douglas Airport's plan to convert its diesel shuttle buses to electric buses over 10 years. The council in May approved spending $4.5 million for the first six buses this fiscal year. 

But this year's budget does not include any other new money for carrying out the SEAP. Kelly said there are "commitments in progress."  

"There may not have been earmarked new dollars," he said. "There is a sense of how do we reallocate, how do we better spend the dollars we have that support that longer term initiative."

ENVIRONMENTALISTS CONCERNED

Still, the changes are raising questions. Former Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who now works with the climate change policy group ecoAmerica in Washington, said she and other environmental advocates are concerned.  

"We really supported Charlotte being a leader in Strategic Energy Action, and getting off of fossil fuels and supporting clean energy and clean air. And with recent actions and departures and dissolving of committees, the community is very concerned that is not happening," Roberts said.

But city council member Larken Egleston said the departures don't worry him.

"I think it's just that we've got good people at the city and they've been given incredible opportunities to have a new challenge in their career, or move up to a higher leadership role," Egleston said.  

Egleston said he thinks the city's environmental efforts are on track. He says the city has a "strong bench" of staff who can fill the soon-to-be vacant jobs. 

In the recently adopted city budget, City Manager Marcus Jones says 2020 will see "important baseline work" on the energy action plan. That includes forming working groups and gathering and analyzing data. Recent discussions have included a debate over how to modernize the city's public bus fleet - whether by using natural gas or electric vehicles. 

While the simultaneous departures may be coincidental, some in city hall are "exasperated," as one put it, at what they see as a lack of attention to environmental initiatives.

There's one exception - the multi-million-dollar Innovation Barn planned in the Belmont neighborhood. Some are concerned that the plan to convert an old city garage east of uptown into a zero-waste showcase is consuming scarce funding, and not doing enough to help climate change. 

WFAE reporter Steve Harrison contributed to this report. See his story about the Innovation Barn.