It is Your Community, Go to a Public Meeting

If not you, who?

Public meetings are for the public that means you and me. At a public meeting, you can learn about issues that matter to you and voice your opinion.

When you read the words “public meeting” in the title of this post, what was your first reaction? Was it something along the lines of “After attending meetings all day at work, the last thing I want to do on my own time is to attend another meeting?” Maybe you thought, “I do not have time to go to a public meeting because “I need to get dinner on the table.” or “I need to help my kids with their homework.” or “I need to finish a project for my boss.”

Maybe you worried about finding a babysitter or a way to get to the meeting, work or school scheduling conflicts, feeling uncomfortable speaking in public, or you just hate meetings.

These are all valid reasons for not attending public meetings. However, chances are there will be a meeting sometime, somewhere, about a topic that matters to you that can go to, if you chose to.

I posit that the hardest barrier to overcome might be apathy; the belief that someone else will do it or that your voice does not matter. You will never know unless you show up. You do not need to commit to attending every water district board, county supervisor, or planning commission meeting for the whole year, just make a commitment to yourself to attend one meeting.

Your experience at the public meeting you choose to attend may surprise you, in a good way.

To illustrate the above point, in this post I will describe my encounter with the U.S. federal government at a public meeting about potential wind farms off the California Central Coast where I live.

California Offshore Wind Planning Informational Forum

When I saw a public meeting notice in the San Luis Obispo Tribune that there would be a forum about offshore wind farms on December 13, 2018, I was eager to attend because I have a strong interest in renewable energy, especially wind and solar. This would be my first federal government public meeting. My spouse agreed to go with me.

Entrance to Monday Club Building in San Luis Obispo, CA
Entrance to the historic Monday Club in San Luis Obispo, CA. Click the photo to visit the Monday Club website.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was hosting the meeting at the historic Monday Club building in San Luis Obispo, CA. The BOEM is the division of the U.S. Department of the Interior that is responsible for overseeing offshore energy development including oil, gas, and wind and doing it in an environmentally and economically responsible way.

At the time of the meeting, Ryan Zinke was the Secretary of the Interior (he would resign just days later) and his mission seemed to be destroying public lands, waters, and the oceans for the benefit of the fossil fuel and mining industries. I wondered what possible good the BOEM could be up to with a boss like Zinke.

Information Stations

We arrived at the Monday Club and joined a slow-moving line of people filing into the building.

I noticed a woman wearing a name badge standing on the lawn greeting people in line. When we reached her, I asked her if she was with the BOEM. She answered affirmatively but seemed a little wary as if she was expecting me to say something anti-BOEM. I told her I support offshore wind energy and that I was happy to meet a woman scientist. She smiled and said, “You will meet more women scientists inside” (we did).

Once we made it through the double doors, I realized why the line was so slow. Each person was required to sign a meeting register in the vestibule before entering the main meeting room.

It was loud and hot inside. On the left, a large projection screen was hanging down with a small number of chairs set up in rows in front of it. To the right, people standing behind folding tables were talking with members of the public while gesturing at display boards and maps and handing out printed materials.

BOEM Wind Forum Public Meeting Hand Outs

After receiving of a map of the information stations at the welcome table, we talked with a woman about the BOEM leasing process and picked up a copy of A Citizen’s Guide to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Renewable Energy Authorization Process.

Next, we discussed BOEM environmental studies with another woman and received a list of BOEM studies related to offshore wind farms.

There was a pause in the action when the woman we met outside came inside and introduced herself as Jean Thurston. She gave us a 15-minute slide presentation explaining that if approved, wind turbines would not appear off our coastline for eight or nine years.

BOEM Offshore Renewable Energy Leasing Process Slide
Slide from BOEM presentation showing that we are at the beginning of the process.

Jean pointed out the room next door that was set up for people to make public comments online or on paper. She reinforced that this meeting was to inform the public and gather public input.

After the presentation, we decided to go outside to cool off.

We Meet a Reporter

Outside the cold air felt wonderful. We spotted a young woman and said hello. She said her name was Kaytlyn Leslie and that she was a reporter for the SLO Tribune. I asked her if she had written the article I had seen in the paper. She acknowledged that she had and I thanked her.

Kaytlyn asked us if we would like to be interviewed. Without thinking about how shy and introverted I am, I immediately grabbed the opportunity and said yes. She asked us some questions and recorded our answers on her smartphone.

You cannot imagine my amazement when two days later I spotted a piece in the Tribune by Kaytlyn in which she had quoted me. I had previously submitted two letters to the editor on the topic; neither was printed, so I felt somehow redeemed.

Back at the Meeting

Cooled off we went back inside and listened to an animated man from the Department of Defense talk about Navy weapons testing as he showed us a map of the wind farm areas.

The California Energy Commission representative seemed more interested in chatting with his colleague than us so we checked out the Data Basin program at the next table. This is a tool for citizen scientists and other interested parties to map things like fishing areas or migratory bird paths.

BOEM Central Coast - Morro Bay and Diablo Canyon Call Areas Slide
Slide from BOEM presentation showing the two potential areas for wind farms off the California Central Coast also known as call areas.

That was the end of the information stations. We decided to forgo the public comment room and make our comments online at home so we put our coats back on and left the building.

A Surprising Thing Occurred at the Meeting

This may sound ridiculous but the most important thing I discovered at the public meeting is that federal government agency employees are people, too. Each person that we spoke with seemed generally interested in sharing information, engaging in conversation, and answering questions.

I came away with a new perspective. Many, if not most, federal government agency employees are probably good at their jobs and care about what they do. Who knows, maybe the people at the BOEM breathed a sigh of relief when Zinke resigned.

If we had not gone to the public meeting, I would still have learned about the wind farm projects from other sources, but I would have missed the opportunity to meet and talk with the actual people responsible for managing offshore wind energy development in the ocean waters off the coast of my town.

Pick Your Own Public Meeting

Now, it is your turn to give public meetings a whirl. Find a public meeting about an issue or cause that matters to you and then go to the meeting.

For example, attend a school board meeting to support integrating Meatless Mondays into the lunch program and your child’s school. At a city council meeting, advocate for more electric vehicle charging stations in municipal parking garages. Go to a town hall meeting to voice your concern about oil and gas exploration endangering your region’s drinking water supply and ask your elected official what she or he is doing to protect your water.

Give yourself extra credit if you attend a public meeting and take an additional action like speaking during the public comment period, signing up for email notifications, talking with other people attending the meeting, filling out a survey, or putting the next meeting on your calendar.

Earlier in this post, I admitted that I had never been to a public meeting put on by the federal government (at least that I remember). Just like you, I have my own reasons for not having done it sooner. I overcame my inertia and you can, too.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

Featured Image at Top: Crowd of community members – photo credit iStock/makyzz

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Voting is an Environmental Act

Vote! It’s your superpower.

The environment surrounds you, me, and everyone else every second of every day. If you want a habitable planet to live on, you need to vote for it.

Everyone deserves and needs clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, healthy food to eat, toxin-free places to live, work, study, and play, and an opportunity to enjoy the rest of nature. We share Earth with billions of other living things that need a habitable planet to live on, too.

Earth is a sphere where everything is connected. The environment crosses all property lines, state boundaries, and international borders. When you vote with the environment in mind, you have the power to affect environmental issues in your community, county, state, country, and even around the world.

In this post, I will attempt to demonstrate how voting impacts the environment by providing a few past and present examples with the hope of encouraging you and other readers to vote in the next election and future elections.

Your Vote Matters

Voting gives you an opportunity to weigh in on who you want to represent you in various government bodies and to participate in deciding whether ballot measures should be approved or not.

Closest to home are local elections. You and other voters in your community choose your mayor (if you have one), city council members, school board members, county supervisors, and special district board members (e.g. water services district) and you vote on local and countywide ballot measures from banning fracking to property tax assessments for services.

In statewide elections, you have a chance to elect a governor and state legislators that are aligned with your priorities and to vote for or against propositions that apply to the whole state like legalizing cannabis, banning single-use plastic bags, or approving bonds to fund water conservation projects.

Participating in national elections enables you to vote for the United States president and members of Congress. The president, in turn, appoints his or her Cabinet, the people who lead federal agencies such as the Departments of State, Energy, Agriculture, Education, Defense, Interior, Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Below are some examples of why your vote matters with a focus on the environment.

“Every election is determined by the people who show up.” ―Larry J. Sabato

Your Vote Matters to Your Community

Water is a constant environmental concern in Cambria the small town I live in on the California Central Coast in San Luis Obispo County.

In November, Cambria residents will vote for two of the five seats on the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) board of directors that oversee our water supply, wastewater treatment, fire protection, and parks and recreation.

This election is a big deal because in 2014 current and former board members decided to build an emergency water reclamation plant to filter brackish groundwater and re-inject it back into the local watershed to supplement our water supply. The facility was built using a temporary emergency permit at a whopping cost of $13 million.

Ratepayers are now saddled with an environmentally unsound plant that cannot be operated without expensive rework and perhaps never. Even though our water bills have doubled, much-needed infrastructure repair and replacement projects have been put on the back burner by the board.

The decisions that the CCSD board make directly affect my family and me so voting for the candidates that I feel will do the best job is important to me.

Your Vote Matters to Your County

San Luis Obispo County voters will have the opportunity to vote on Measure G-18, which would prohibit new petroleum extraction and ban all oil and gas well stimulation treatments (e.g. fracking) on land within the unincorporated area of the county.

This ballot measure is the result of a coalition of San Luis Obispo County residents who are concerned about the oil fields already operating in the county and that want to put a kibosh on future expansion.

Members of Coalition to Protect SLO County Delivering Protect Our Water Initiative Signatures to San Luis Obispo County Courthouse
Members of the Coalition to Protect SLO County Delivering 20, 473 Protect Our Water Initiative Signatures to San Luis Obispo County Courthouse

Oil extraction uses a tremendous amount of water. Some of it is reclaimed and treated, however, toxic oil wastewater is also injected into aquifers underlying the county, which may be needed at some point in the future to provide drinking water or to irrigate the agriculture fields and vineyards in this rural area. Drinking water wells near the oil fields are at risk of contamination.

Protecting our water is of paramount importance to me. I also believe that we need to get off burning fossil fuels as soon as possible and power our society with clean renewable energy so I think this measure is a step in the right direction.

Your Vote Matters to Your State

This year, California voters will go to the polls to elect a new governor to replace Governor Jerry Brown Jr. who is leaving office after serving longer than any other California governor. Besides balancing the state budget, Governor Brown has positioned California as an environmental leader in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and changing over to clean renewable energy.

Will our new governor keep the momentum going, stall it, or actively try to thwart it? It depends on who we vote for to lead the state.

Also on the California ballot, are 11 propositions, one of which deals with water (a perennial issue in our drought-prone state). Proposition 3 is a bond measure that could provide much-needed funding for safe drinking water facilities as well as watershed management projects to prevent soil erosion and flooding and to recharge groundwater basins.

Sometimes proposition titles and summaries make them seem better than they are so it pays to read the full text during the weeks leading up to the election.

Your Vote Matters to Your Country

In 2016, a twist in the Electoral College process resulted in Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States even though Hillary Clinton received more votes. From the time President Trump took office on January 20, 2017, until now, his actions have already had a far-reaching impact on the United States and the rest of the world.

Looking at his actions from an environmental perspective, I selected two that stand out as being particularly harmful and dangerous to not only the American people but to people all across the world.

When President Trump appointed Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) he was making good on his campaign promise to overturn and roll back environmental regulations and safeguards while attempting to dismantle the agency founded in 1970 to protect the health and wellbeing of the American people and the environment.

Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general with a long history of suing the EPA, proceeded to repeal the Clean Power Plan that would have cut greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from fossil fuel burning power plants, rescinded the Waters of the United States Clean Water Rule aimed at protecting wetlands that recharge aquifers and prevent flooding, and refused to ban Chlorpyrifos a pesticide known to be a carcinogen.

In July 2018, after months of being hounded for his excessive spending of taxpayer dollars—interestingly, not because he was destroying the agency he had sworn to lead—Pruitt resigned. He was replaced by former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, who is now presiding over rolling back Federal Clean Car Standards that would have increased fuel efficiency of new vehicles and reduced air pollution.

Your Vote Matters to the World

Fulfilling another campaign promise, Trump announced in June 2016 that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, an international agreement signed by 195 countries with the long-term goal of keeping the global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels to minimize the risks of climate change.

A Hand Holding a Tiny City Powered by Renewable Energy
A Hand Holding a Tiny City Powered by Renewable Energy – Photo Credit iStock/ violetkaipa.

The United States should be leading the effort to end the era of fossil fuels and to accelerate the transition to clean renewable energy not isolating itself from the rest of the world.

One can only wonder how much progress the United States could be making on the environmental front if every eligible voter had voted in 2016. We have another chance in 2020.

I hope the above examples adequately illustrate how voting affects the environment, which in turn affects you, me, and everyone else hoping to live on Earth now and in the future.

Imagine if Everyone Voted

The number one reason many people give for not voting is that they do not think that their vote matters. Certainly, it is your right to vote or not to vote. However, if you choose not to vote, you are still influencing election results.

I was fortunate to grow up with two parents who regularly voted and gave me the understanding that voting is a privilege and a duty of being a United States citizen. I still believe that and I vote.

Even though the candidates that I vote for do not always win the election and ballot measures I am against pass and measures I am for fail, I still feel voting is important. In those cases, I have made my voice heard and provided a data point. In today’s data-driven world, if enough of us create the same data point, politicians will take notice and act accordingly.

Imagine if everyone were to overcome apathy, difficult voting situations (some states make it harder than others), and other reasons for not voting and we all voted in the upcoming election and future elections. We could come together and vote for people who will actively work towards keeping Earth habitable for ourselves, our children, and future generations.

Let’s do it.

If you need help finding information about national, state, or local elections, USA.gov’s Voting and Elections webpage is a good place to start.  Nonprofit Ballotpedia’s Elections webpage also houses useful information and links.  Californians you can find information on the California Secretary of State’s Election and Voter Information webpage.

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” —Wendell Berry

Featured Image at Top: Woman Carrying a “Vote on behalf of your Mother” Sign During a March – Photo Credit Shutterstock/Sheila Fitzgerald

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