Smithers council voted 4-3 to declare a climate emergency at their July 9 meeting. (Trevor Hewitt photo)

Resident urges Town to create citizens’ climate council

In a letter to council Tina Portman says other jurisdictions have built similar “citizen assemblies”

Should the Town be doing more after declaring a climate emergency? For two environmentally-minded Smithereens, the answer is a resounding yes.

At their Nov. 26 meeting, Smithers Town Council received two emails from members of the public with suggestions about how the Town can be doing more following their July 9 declaration of a climate emergency.

READ MORE: Smithers council declares climate emergency

In her letter to council Tina Portman said she is proposing the Town put together a “citizens’ climate council.”

According to Portman, the hypothetical task force’s mandate would be to explore climate issues in the town and recommend locally-viable solutions to council.

In her letter Portman notes this idea is not new and a number of other jurisdictions have built similar “citizen assemblies” or councils.

“The advantages of this for the town are that [we] get moving on this issue quickly [and] we have direct participation from citizens,” said Portman.

Portman is also recommending the hypothetical council be gender equal and include Wet’suwet’en representation as well as the representation from people of all socioeconomic walks of life.

To this last point, Portman is also suggesting compensation for members of the council making below a to-be-determined economic threshold.

After making an informal comment about the Town’s efforts to follow up in the aftermath of their announcement, former councillor Phil Brienesse also addressed council in a letter where he suggested the Town refer to budget the creation of a new position whose explicit role is dealing with the stated climate emergency.

In his letter he suggests “Climate Change Coordinator” as an appropriate title for the position.

Brienesse acknowledged the fiscal reality of the request but said the science has made it clear it’s time to act.

“All the current science is telling us we are not moving fast enough … I know sometimes this is difficult to comprehend but the majority of you will die of old age. For those of us with young children there is an ever-increasing likelihood that our children will die of climate change.

“That may seem dramatic, but it is what the science is telling us.”

In their discussion of the two letters, which council deliberated on together, Smithers Chief Administrative Officer Alan Harris said some of the Town’s most immediate plans regarding climate change are to partake in provincial initiatives relating to emissions reductions.

“Staff will be moving forward with a recommendation to partake in the Community Energy and Emissions Plan and Corporate Greenhouse Gas Emissions plan through BC Hydro,” said Harris.

“We need to commit $15,000 so the recommendation coming from staff is to allocate $15,000 out of reserves to take advantage of the BC Hydro funding that is being put forth.”

Harris said he is confident the public can be incorporated into the planning process, which is slated to start early next year and continue into March.

In response to a question from Coun. Casda Thomas in support of running something like a citizens’ climate council paralell to the BC Hydro initiatives, Harris noted he had concerns about such a situation because it could create two separate findings from two different groups.

“You’re going to potentially get a difference of opinion and the work that’s done by this group to come up with the community energy efficiency plan will potentially not find acceptance from that group.”

Deputy mayor Gladys Atrill said she appreciates the public getting involved.

“The letter in front of us is making a specific ask of something and I think we should at least discuss that, even if the decision is to put it off in favour of getting the report back from staff.”

Councillor Wray (who voted against the climate emergency motion) noted the unintended consequences of declaring the emergency was one of the reasons he voted against it.

READ MORE: Former councillor wants Town to do more after declaring climate emergency

“I voted against declaring an emergency because my main concern was actually how are we prepared to act like it’s an emergency and I don’t believe we are.”

Wray also responded to points in Brienesse’s letter where he suggests the Town should be able to hire a Climate Change Coordinator because it hired the additional positions of Fire Trainer and Emergency Social Services Coordinator. He said both of the appointments were in response to legislative responsibilities of the Town.

He added he didn’t have much faith the Town would create the position if it was referred to budget.

“I can pretty much guarantee from my point of view that it won’t happen this year,” said Wray. “There’s some budget concerns that are public, there’s some that will be coming through the budget that we know about and it’s going to be a very difficult year.”

In the end, council voted to postpone consideration of Portman’s letter until the Community Energy Plan Corporate Greenhouse Emission Plan grant consideration is brought forward to council.

Wray noted this means it should be brought back to council around their next meeting or shortly after.

“Then that way we can kind of look at what the grant involves and how we can involve citizens,” he said.

Council also voted unanimously to refer Brienesse’s request to the standing committee on strategic priorities. Despite voting against the declaration, Wray noted he was open to looking at the possibility of creating the position.

“I think it should be considered at some point in time, to me the question is, is it 2020 or 2021 and I would hope that maybe 2021 budget might be more appropriate.”

In wrapping up conversation on the two letters, Atrill said citizen engagement such as that from Brienesse and Portman is essential to solving climate change and she appreciates their insight.

“It’s the first part of citizen engagement, people are paying attention at what’s happening in the community and they’re actually making suggestions.”

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