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Sonoma County supervisors declare climate emergency, pledge to make climate change priority

In other business on Tuesday

New leader

Geoffery Ross, who was hired in early 2018 as assistant executive director for the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, was promoted Tuesday to lead that agency in the wake of former Executive Director Margaret Van Vliet's resignation earlier this month. The commission, among other things, deals with housing vouchers for low income residents. Ross will earn $175,130, along with benefits. Ross, a Marine Corps veteran, thanked supervisors for the opportunity, and said housing can play a pivotal role in the climate crisis, mental health, homelessness and traffic issues.

Airport terminal construction ready to begin

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to terms with a construction manager for the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport Terminal redevelopment. The company Q & D Construction was awarded the contract, a move that was applauded by supervisors and labor leaders alike. Sheet metal, electrical and plumbing union representatives praised the construction firm, saying it was committed to paying a prevailing wage and had agreed to work with existing apprenticeship programs. The expansion is expected to cost $25 million total, and construction is expected to take 2.5 years after starting in 2020.

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday declared a climate emergency, but for many activists and even a majority of the supervisors, that formal measure doesn’t go far enough, with no specific call for action that would show regard for the climate crisis as a true emergency, critics said.

The three-page declaration designates the county’s response to climate change a top board priority, and directs county staff to reevaluate existing policies “through the lens of the climate emergency,” which it says threatens humanity and the natural and built environments.

“We have to stop acting like business as usual is cutting it, because it’s not; we need a transformation,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district covers the Sonoma Coast. “It’s critical we pass a resolution and follow that up with meaningful change. We need to act like our planet is on fire because it is.”

The board’s action comes ahead of a planned weeklong climate strike, in which youth of the world are expected to demand action on climate change starting Friday.

It also comes the day before President Donald Trump was expected to announce during a fundraising stop in California that he will end a 1970s-era rule that has allowed California to set vehicle emissions standards more stringent than those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Although Hopkins said she was thrilled to take action on the climate resolution, she agreed with some activists who said during public comment Tuesday that the statement didn’t go far enough to require action or earmark funding.

Christine Byrne, a high school science teacher who moved to Sonoma County shortly before the deadly October 2017 wildfires, saw her school - Roseland Collegiate Prep - burn in the disaster. She said she still has students living in shared spaces. Everyone needs to recognize the immediacy of changes being wrought on our climate, she said.

“We are all climate survivors,” said Byrne, who recently stepped away from the classroom to work with young people as a coordinator for the Sonoma County chapter of the Sunrise Movement, formed by young people to tackle the climate crisis. “This is a trauma I never want to experience again. I strongly urge you to pass a robust climate emergency resolution, and beyond that, support a Green New Deal.”

The resolution was developed by the county’s Regional Climate Protection Authority, formed in 2009 to represent local governments and coordinate climate advocacy, project management, planning, grant administration and research.

Aleka Seville is the authority’s director of climate programs, and on Tuesday she applauded supervisors for taking up the resolution as written, saying the real work involves implementing strategies.

The resolution places the blame for climate change on humankind, makes reference to tipping points and declares the need to reverse damage to the atmosphere. It also blamed climate change for environmental disasters visited upon Sonoma County in the past several years, including the deadly October 2017 wildfires.

“Restoring a safe and stable climate requires an emergency mobilization to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors, to rapidly and safely draw down or remove all the excess carbon from the atmosphere, and to implement measures to protect all people and species,” the resolution read, in part.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, who is in line to be board chairwoman next year, promised to make the climate emergency her priority in 2020, with Hopkins set to by her side as vice chairwoman.

“We’re all passionate about this,” Gorin said. “This isn’t just two members. This is way too important. It’s time for the county to lead the way.”

Gorin and Hopkins proposed the creation of a board committee to refine the county’s goals and actions, or even to decide where and how money would be spent.

Chairman David Rabbitt said he’d like to narrow the focus of any committee so it’s not a minority of the board building legislation without input from ?the majority.

“This county has never really done that, and I’m not sure we should start that now,” Rabbitt said.

Activists also called for the county to invest its ?$2 million surplus - tax income above projected revenues - in initiatives to combat climate change, including educational campaigns.

Caitlin Cornwall is planning and partnerships advisor for Sonoma Ecology Center, an environmental group that pursues projects in the Sonoma Valley. She congratulated the board for taking action via resolution, and said the worthiness of the resolution will be tied to the implementation, saying there is energy in the community to do the work.

“I would ask you to spend some of the county surplus on a ferociously effective implementation plan that leverages the power and passion in the community,” Cornwall said.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane agreed, saying money needs to be put toward the effort. She and other board members have also discussed putting extra funds toward other projects, including tearing down derelict buildings on county property along Chanate Road after two failed attempts to sell the property.

“There has to be some prioritizing,” Zane said, adding that County Administrator Sheryl Bratton would be responsible for providing a recommendation on where the county could find the money.

Rabbitt disputed any surplus exists, given backlogs in public service and infrastructure across county government. He called the climate emergency one of many balls the county has to juggle going forward.

“We have a mental health emergency in this county, although it’s undeclared; we have the fiscal cliff looming; a pending homelessness emergency declared last year,” Rabbitt said. “We’re in for an iterative process going forward that we’ll continue to adjust as we travel.”

Rabbitt promised regular check-ins throughout the fall and winter months as the board transitions from his leadership to Gorin’s tenure.

Supervisor James Gore praised Gorin’s planned approach to her 2020 chairwomanship, saying his four-plus years on the board had reflected the peril posed by climate change.

“We’ve gone from historic drought to cataclysmic floods to catastrophic fires. We’ve had the most amount of rain and the least amount of rain in Sonoma’s history,” Gore said. “I’m excited to see this movement.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter ?@tylersilvy.

In other business on Tuesday

New leader

Geoffery Ross, who was hired in early 2018 as assistant executive director for the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, was promoted Tuesday to lead that agency in the wake of former Executive Director Margaret Van Vliet's resignation earlier this month. The commission, among other things, deals with housing vouchers for low income residents. Ross will earn $175,130, along with benefits. Ross, a Marine Corps veteran, thanked supervisors for the opportunity, and said housing can play a pivotal role in the climate crisis, mental health, homelessness and traffic issues.

Airport terminal construction ready to begin

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to terms with a construction manager for the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport Terminal redevelopment. The company Q & D Construction was awarded the contract, a move that was applauded by supervisors and labor leaders alike. Sheet metal, electrical and plumbing union representatives praised the construction firm, saying it was committed to paying a prevailing wage and had agreed to work with existing apprenticeship programs. The expansion is expected to cost $25 million total, and construction is expected to take 2.5 years after starting in 2020.

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