Commission, utility board discuss climate officer

The Gainesville City Commission met Tuesday with the Utility Advisory Board (UAB) to discuss community engagement on the board’s new utility and energy policy and the creation of a new chief climate officer within Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU).

Ed Bielarski, general manager of GRU, said he and his executive staff have considered where the climate officer would fit into GRU and what the role would require.

He said the officer would need communication ability to tell the public how GRU is addressing the climate and also a technical skill to lead staff within GRU toward the city’s climate initiatives.

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Bielarski said the utility had made good progress on the climate initiatives, but its way of communicating with the public needs modernizing―like GRU’s new online dashboard that shows how the utility is working toward the city’s goals.

The utility could begin to end less effective outreach like bill inserts or surveys and redirect that money into the climate-related programs, Bielarski said.

The new position, and any staff under it, will need to be financed, an expense not included in the 2022 budget.

The commission recently tasked Bielarski to create the role of climate officer as one of the conditions for him to keep his role as GRU’s general manager after Mayor Lauren Poe asked for his resignation in September. 

Bielarski said his team would return to the commission with budget modifications or other savings that could then finance the position.

He added that the utility is seeing vacancies in its workforce―a change primarily attributed to changes in employee expectations.

Though unfortunate, Bielarski said GRU is spending less because of the vacancies, giving the utility some flexibility for financing the unplanned position.

Another question is where the climate officer would fit in GRU or even inside regular city government.

Wes Wheeler, a member of the UAB, asked the commission to seriously consider placing the climate officer within the general government and report to the commission through the city manager’s office.

For one, the city’s climate goals involve every part of the city.

“This is a community responsibility,” Wheeler said, referencing a greenhouse gas emission report the commission heard last week. “Yes, the utility is one of the primary drivers of it, but this is something that general government and all of us have to do.”

Plus, Wheeler said he is unsure how effective a climate officer would be within GRU where the person would report to Bielarski, who sees climate issues differently than other members of UAB.

“I believe I have real concerns about having an environmental officer report to the head of a general utility,” Wheeler said.

Don Davis, a member of the UAB, said GRU has historically needed a public relations person as well. He asked the city commission to consider who would do the talking for GRU.

Currently, Davis said, GRU seems to be on the defensive but could easily promote itself in an offensive way by answering questions and highlighting achievements.

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos motioned for Bielarski to bring back a philosophy for the climate officer’s role along with the proposed budget changes to finance it.

The motion was amended to direct Bielarski and the city manager to also bring back plans on how the officer could be housed within the general government.

Commissioner Harvey Ward seconded the motion and added how vital communication will be for GRU.

He said drawing a line for citizens between extra funding for Gainesville Fire Rescue and saving money on insurance is easier than with GRU.

The connection is tough because Gainesville is one part of the issue.

“We need to be telling the story,” Ward said. “If we don’t tell the story, people have no idea why the rates went up.”

The joint session also covered community education for the UAB’s new utility and energy policy.

GRU has two sessions planned. One will be on Nov. 6 at Duval Elementary and the other on Nov. 20 at the Southwest Advocacy Group.

The meeting will feature subject matter experts and focus on the environment, energy conservation and renewable energy.

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