On climate work in Orange County, it’s been two steps forward, one step back. Most recently is the unexpected shelving of a countywide climate council that had made progress in sharing information and planning climate action initiatives among local experts and governments. The board was suspended, its members offended, but—hopefully—the situation will soon be amended.

Last April, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners officially reorganized and effectively suspended the Orange County Climate Council based on the recommendations in a report from the county’s Climate Council Review Subcommittee that was formed in October 2021 with the purpose of evaluating the council.

The 31-member climate council formed in September 2019 to share information and collaborate on climate change initiatives between local jurisdictions, schools, experts, community members, and environmental advocacy institutions. The council had issues with attendance—compounded by remote meetings and COVID-19—from the get-go, but had successfully completed multiple projects, and members were in the process of trying to organize themselves internally by drafting bylaws and working on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to better communicate between the jurisdictions of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough.

The county’s Climate Council Review Subcommittee, spearheaded by commissioner Jamezetta Bedford and joined by commissioners Amy Fowler and Anna Richards, looked into the progress and performance of the council. Council members say the committee took the council’s efforts to organize as a sign of dysfunctionality and, ultimately, the committee members decided more was wrong with the council than was right.

“I think this was totally ineffective—I mean, they couldn’t make quorum,” Bedford says. “The membership had never been completed, they weren’t diverse. I don’t think they were an effective or operating council.”

Members who were on the council came to starkly different conclusions, though.

At the April 26 meeting where the council was suspended, the chair of the climate council, Melissa McCullough, gave a speech about alleged inaccuracies and mistakes—including the assertion that the group couldn’t consistently make quorum—within the commissioners’ subcommittee report. Following her thorough address, the subcommittee presented its findings and the seven county commissioners discussed potential solutions, including disbanding the council entirely, until the commissioners came to the decision to suspend and reorganize the council to follow a model in which it would meet three times a year following its suspension.

Council members say the subcommittee’s recommendations were made without collaboration with the council members, and the majority of these members say they had no idea the council faced an imminent possibility of suspension—McCullough says she wasn’t aware that the commissioners would be taking action until the day of the meeting.

“I found out rather inadvertently,” McCullough says. “Somebody saw it, and they called me up and said, ‘Do you realize that this is on the agenda?’”

McCullough says information wasn’t shared with the council members. She notified the other three elected officials who represent Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough about the meeting, but they couldn’t attend on such short notice.

“That kind of explains why I am the only person who spoke,” McCullough says. “Amy Ryan, who represented Chapel Hill on the council, asked [Bedford] if they would delay the discussions so that the other electeds could have some input—and she was told no.”

Bedford says she knew that the council reorganization item was going to be on the agenda for a week before the April 26 meeting and still did not notify the council members, something she says she takes accountability for.

“I could have handled that better,” Bedford says. “If I thought about it, I could definitely have sent an email to the whole climate council to inform them. I’m sure it bothers many of the council members—that’s a legit complaint. But I don’t believe at all that it would have changed the 7-0 vote whatsoever, and I think it is a form over substance issue there.”

Mark Marcoplos, the founder of the council and a former county commissioner, says the process the commissioners undertook was done with a “very disturbing lack of transparency.”

“If you were a responsible elected official and you saw this committee that you thought was not fulfilling its function and didn’t have any value and it needed to be addressed, you would reach out to the members of the committee and you would express your thoughts on that to them,” Marcoplos says. “Let them know that you have these concerns, get their feedback, and work together to come to some kind of consensus on what needs to happen.

“Well, this was clearly just a hit job.”

The council’s work so far

Since its formation in 2019, the Orange County Climate Council has collaborated on a variety of projects, research initiatives, and climate discussions. One of those projects included the Climate Action Relational Database, a spreadsheet that incorporates all of the climate initiatives that the different municipalities are carrying out. The database, while seemingly an obvious first step, was crucial to helping each municipality understand what the others had done by consolidating countywide climate actions, says Chapel Hill representative and sustainability expert Donna Rubinoff.

“The first thing you have to do is just understand what you’re working with,” Rubinoff says. “It’s not rocket science, but it was needed and it was important that it happened.”

Another project initiated under the council was Rubinoff’s work directing several student interns to study climate justice and climate communication strategies and data on how people from various demographics engage with information about climate change.

“Climate action isn’t just about building solar panels and wind and then weatherizing houses and the technology of climate change,” Rubinoff says. “So much of it has to do with the quality of climate communication your organization presents—research has found that one of the most important and valuable tools for getting people involved in climate action is to get them to just simply start talking about it.”

Rubinoff says she had hoped that this work could eventually help inform the county’s climate action plan, which has not yet materialized despite Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough all having climate plans of their own.

The council was also working with the three jurisdictions, mayors, and the county board of commissioners’ chair to begin the official process of forming an MOU, an exercise that was meant to preempt situations like the suspension of the council, says Sammy Slade, a member of the Carrboro Town Council and chair for Carrboro on the climate council.

“Our attorneys were already working on a draft that the council was going to review and provide input on, given the experience we had already acquired by then,” Slade says. “So it was just very strange that they aborted that process and have taken this unilateral approach.”

Why reorganize the council?

Marcoplos suspects that the suspension of the council was merely political.

“Nothing really points to the fact that it was disingenuous more than the fact that we went [about] eight months without an Orange County representative on the climate council,” Marcoplos says. “And then all of a sudden [Bedford] rolls in for a couple of meetings, and she turns around and she gets two of the newest commissioners who know the least about the history of this stuff to form a committee with her and tells them why the council is no longer useful and needs to be done away with.”

But Bedford says the politics between herself and Marcoplos have nothing to do with the reorganization, and that the council never notified the commissioners that Orange County’s previous representative, Mark Dorosin, who relocated to Florida last year, wasn’t showing up to meetings.

“I have too much to do—I work, and I do this, and I’m a grandma, and I’m a mom—to care politically about [Marcoplos],” Bedford says. “It’s absurd—I mean, climate just has to be elevated and it was kind of disappointing to find out that for [about] six months prior, Dorosin had never shown up and no one, including the electeds, had told any of us on the [board].”

Bedford also says it’s incorrect to say that her fellow subcommittee member Anna Richards didn’t know much about the council, as she was the NAACP representative in the beginning and had attended periodically.

Ultimately, Bedford says, she had no personal gain from reorganizing the council except to help advance county climate action.

“For me, it’s about: this group is wasting staff time and we don’t have time with climate,” Bedford says. “And we have got to get a county climate action plan and get going on this—that’s why I was reorganizing, I really did not think we would be suspending.”

While the suspension was legal under the board’s scope of power, Slade says it violated something that goes beyond law: the spirit of the organization.

“Typically we have laid-out instructions for how to dismantle an organization and for lack of having that, they legally could dismantle it,” Slade says. “But the spirit of collaboration and the spirit of how this group formed was violated in that there wasn’t an attempt to work and benefit and glean what the experience from the council itself was in a collaborative way with the other jurisdictions and representatives.”

Spirit aside, the commissioners’ chair, Renee Price, says it’s the commission’s duty to look into councils and committees that are not meeting Orange County standards.

“Any advisory board serves at the pleasure of the Board of County Commissioners,” Price says. “It would be our responsibility that if an advisory board or commission is having some difficulty or if we have issues with it, for the sake of everybody, we should investigate.”

Bedford says it comes down to the council’s lack of a specific charge and MOU, something she says she apologizes for on behalf of the elected officials who helped form the council in the first place.

“It was just bizarre operations, it was really the work of one or two people—it wasn’t a climate council doing work or sharing information—and in my opinion, that’s one of the key things that needs to change,” Bedford says. “The electeds let [constituents] down by not having a charge, not having an MOU. We’re going to fix it and start again.”

Going forward

The commissioners’ next step is to create an Orange County climate action plan, something they hope to expedite given the existing climate plans of the other local jurisdictions.

“The county’s fortunate that Carrboro’s had a plan for several years, Chapel Hill’s had one for a year and a half, Hillsborough’s is almost finished,” Bedford says. “So we can copy-paste, copy-paste, hopefully it won’t—it shouldn’t—take us two years. We don’t have two years.”

Slade says that the reorganization has only set the county back in its future work to combat climate change.

“We have a very short, diminishing window for climate action, and it’s just frustrating to be involved with organizations and electeds who set things back, as this is doing,” Slade says. “Dismantling a group that was trying to find its rhythm is a big disruption to the vital work we have and dealing with the climate emergency on the local level.”

Price says climate action is a top priority to the county, but in addition to encouraging the use of more expensive climate initiatives like electric vehicles, she also emphasizes the importance of finding ways for underserved communities to participate in mitigating the effects of climate change that impact them most intensely.

“We are very concerned about climate change here,” Price says. “And it may appear differently when you talk to different people, they may address it in different ways. But we definitely have to look at it.”

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