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PennFuture and Partners Pave the Way for Erie Environmental Advisory Council

After more than a year of advocacy by PennFuture and our partners, Erie City Council this week passed an ordinance creating an Environmental Advisory Council (EAC)

The second municipality to develop an active EAC in Northwest Pennsylvania, Erie’s EAC will build capacity and support community outreach efforts at a time of growing environmental ambitions. 

What is an EAC?

EACs are extensions of municipal governments that focus on environmental conservation and improvement. They provide increased capacity for municipalities to protect their natural resources, communicate with the public, and meet their environmental goals. 

Pennsylvania Act 148 of 1973 authorized municipalities to create EACs via ordinance and the model has proven successful. In fact, Erie is now home to the 161st EAC in the Commonwealth

EACs do not make regulatory decisions nor are they independent environmental advisory organizations. They function most effectively when working cooperatively with elected officials, staff, and other authorities and boards.

EACs are comprised of seven voting members that must be municipal residents. Members must have expertise in environmental matters, and they serve three-year terms with staggered initial appointments.

Why is an EAC important for the City of Erie?

The City of Erie is working to reinvent itself by attracting 21st century businesses and bringing people, especially young people, to work, live, and play in the city. Many in the city are also working to address racial inequities and high poverty rates. Today’s young adults seek sustainable and socially aware cities where they feel their voices can be heard.

Recent efforts by Mayor Joseph Schember to achieve this future include hiring a diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice consultant; installing solar panels on the city’s fire station; and committing to the city’s first climate and environmental justice planning processes.

However, Erie will need more capacity and resources to meet its goals of becoming a more sustainable city. A well-functioning EAC that works with government is a low-cost way to expand the city’s capacity to reach this goal. In addition to advising city departments on environmental matters, an EAC can expand outreach to Erie residents, especially when planning and decision-making will impact them. This increased public involvement will go far to bring residents to the table and to elevate their voices - two important aspects for addressing injustice.

Mayor Schember stated a desire to create a body to advise him on climate and environmental matters in his first term. Environmental groups supported this but recognized an opportunity to implement a model that could transcend any one administration. In alignment with Our Water, Our Future: A Common Agenda for Protecting Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie Watershed, a codified EAC was recommended that would be much more difficult for a future administration to dismantle.

What actions led to EAC ordinance passage?

Mayor Schember and City Sustainability Coordinator Sarah Peelman welcomed the input of PennFuture and our partners, based on the Common Agenda. As a result, the following individuals embarked on a campaign to create a City of Erie EAC:

The team researched best practices and met with several existing EACs before providing a proposal to the Mayor and City Council President. This proposal included a 12-step “roadmap” for Erie EAC creation. Recommended action included interagency and community outreach. The group then drafted an EAC ordinance based on examples from other cities and submitted this to the Mayor, City Council, and the City Solicitor for review.

PennFuture is thankful for the support of the mayor and City Council. Still, passing the EAC ordinance was not without its challenges. 

The final ordinance included language that requires the EAC only research and focus on those initiatives dictated by the mayor and City Council. However, the first power EACs hold, as outlined in the state governing legislation, is to “identify environmental problems and recommend plans and programs…”. 

If the EAC is unable to study additional issues, the council would be left vulnerable to individual interests of elected officials, rather than be accountable to needs of the community. 

EACs that our partnership consulted maintain a cooperative working relationship with elected officials, but the council leaders are trusted as experts, left to conduct public outreach, identify issues, and make recommendations accordingly. Leaders can then choose whether to act upon those recommendations. 

PennFuture and our partners chose to support the final ordinance language because we believe qualified EAC appointees will gain the trust of leaders. However, if political threats arise, we will defend the rightful duties of the EAC.

What are the next steps for the Erie EAC?

It is vitally important that the city receive diverse, passionate, and qualified applicants to serve on the EAC. Four appointments will be made by Council and three by the mayor. 

If you are a qualified resident of the City of Erie, apply to serve! Encourage friends and colleagues to apply too! Please reach out to Erie Campaign Manager Jenny Tompkins if you would like additional information.

Passage of the EAC ordinance was made possible by months of collaborative educational and outreach efforts. It is the hope that this initial work of the advocacy team will provide a foundation for new EAC members to build from. The EAC framework, now implemented by 160 communities, has the potential to provide great benefit to the City of Erie and its residents. Erie’s leaders must give it space to do so.

Photo courtesy Doug Kerr

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