What work do you do?
Earlier this year I was elected to serve as mayor of Gainesville, Fla., for the next three years. Gainesville is a beautiful and diverse city of about 117,000, often called “the city in the forest” because of our heavy tree cover. Gainesville is the home of the University of Florida, the fourth-largest college campus in the nation, with over 48,000 students.
Although this is my first year as mayor, it’s my seventh year in public office. I was elected to the Gainesville City Commission in 1996 when I was 29. After serving two terms, I stepped down in 2002 due to term limits.
How does it relate to the environment?
To me, local government is really at the cutting edge of environmental policy. Your local officials set land-use and transportation policy, make water-quality and -quantity decisions, issue industrial-use permits, oversee power-plant operations, and monitor contaminated-site cleanups. Working for a city or county, whether as an elected or appointed official, really enables you to have a say in the future of your community. I’m particularly focused on how we can help make cities more desirable places to live, as one way to limit the urban sprawl that adds to destruction of our natural and agricultural resources.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Every day is a little different, which is part of the excitement of the job. On average, I probably spent about 15 hours per week in public meetings, debating issues as diverse as civil-rights policy, employee pension plans, solid-waste pickup, police communications and technology, recreation funding, whether to provide incentives for particular downtown revitalization projects, etc., etc.
Right now, my schedule is jammed with public outreach, political appearances, and fund-raisers. Yesterday, I spent several hours judging candidates for the University of Florida Homecoming Queen pageant, and then ran to a rally to pump up the crowd for a visit from vice presidential candidate John Edwards. Afterwards I waited to meet Sen. Edwards, then ran back to the would-be queens, then ran home to get organized for a fund-raiser I’m hosting for one of my allies on the County Commission this week. Tonight I’m headed downtown to visit the “Gators for Kerry” and other young Democrats who are camped out (literally! with tents!) on our community plaza to vote first thing tomorrow morning. The polls in Florida open on Oct. 18, and we’re trying to get the faithful to vote early so that other voters aren’t discouraged by long lines on Election Day.
I also spend a lot of time visiting community groups, meeting with citizens one on one, and traveling for the city. Last week, I presented a talk on our use of technology during the hurricanes to the Temple University Mayors Summit in Washington, D.C. (We were hit by outer bands from two of the four storms that just crashed through our state.) On the flight back to Florida, I hooked up with Deb Callahan (president of the national League of Conservation Voters), and we caught a ride together to the Bruce Springsteen/R.E.M./Tracy Chapman/John Fogerty Vote for Change concert. It was a great event. In some small way, I’ve worked on every presidential election since Jimmy Carter’s, and to me the grassroots activism and citizen interest this year is more than I’ve ever seen. Of course, a lot of Floridians are motivated by continuing distress over what happened here in 2000.
Tomorrow morning I have to cut a contestant in “The Intern with Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan,” a competition based on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” The competitors are all students at Santa Fe Community College, and each week they complete a public service project in an effort to win the chance to work in my office. Yesterday they worked on a Habitat for Humanity house, and next week they’ll work at the homeless shelter. It’s fun, and each of the kids is great, so I hate to have to tell one of them to “stay in school!” each week (this is the softer version of “you’re fired!”). See TheInternProject.com to follow the drama.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
When I finished graduate school in 1992 (at UF, of course), I took a job as an environmental engineer, running the Hazardous Materials Management Program for Alachua County and primarily working on groundwater cleanup sites. I worked there about five years, and really got to love local government in the process. You have a great opportunity to directly help people. (In addition, for four years I ran a local land trust, Alachua Conservation Trust, and also helped start the Florida Conservation Alliance, our state’s affiliate to the Federation of State Conservation Voter Leagues.)
Back then I often would handle calls from citizens about contaminated groundwater, poor management of hazardous waste, worries about nearby landfills, and so on. I worked with local businesses to help them improve their environmental practices, and most of them were very grateful for the advice. That job also gave me a lot of direct contact with the County Commissioners, for whom I worked. I realized through that experience that elected officials are really pretty normal people. At least on the local level, we’re not richer, smarter, or better looking than regular folks, just confident or crazy enough to put our names on the ballot.
Since I’d been active in politics for years, public office was always an interest, but in 1996 my chance came earlier than expected. Gainesville’s a relatively progressive city, but that year there were two very conservative older men running for a seat on the City Commission. Since I was active in the local Democratic Party, I started asking if anyone with better policy positions was likely to get into the race. Everyone kept saying, “No, why don’t you run?” I think they were probably half kidding, but I was too naive to know the difference. Literally on the last day I went down to the Supervisor of Elections Office and registered to run. Aside from the fact that my two opponents were out of step with the community and competing for the same niche, it helped that I have lived in Gainesville my whole life, and earned the endorsement of the Gainesville Sun, our hometown paper, as well as 12 of the 14 organizational endorsements in the race — everyone except the Homebuilders and the Realtors. (Actually, I’m grateful to have received the Sun’s endorsement in all three of my races, much to my surprise and much to my opponents’ consternation.)
After serving six years then taking two years off, it was a tough decision to get back into politics as a candidate. Aside from the risk of defeat, running and serving in office puts a tremendous strain on your family, your finances, and your normal career. My husband and I were married last November, right in the middle of the campaign, and my engineering work has been on hold for months. But the rewards are tremendous, and this is a critical time in our city and our nation, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Well, we have to start with the fact that I have four email addresses to keep up with … one for normal work, one for politics, one for the city, and one for Alachua Conservation Trust, the land trust I work with. My city inbox is by far the most overflowing — there are probably about 1,900 emails in there. I try to respond to emails sent directly to me, but I also get copied on the messages sent to my colleagues. There are usually around 400 in my work email box, 200 in my political box, and 40 in ACT’s box. I used to be religious about responding to email, but it’s just out of control now. A phone call is often more effective these days. I’ve been thinking about getting a Blackberry, but then I wonder if I really want that stuff following me around all the time.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
These days it seems like much of my time is spent with other politicians. At yesterday’s rally for John Edwards, it was a regular who’s who, with candidates and officials from every level of government. I’m also working to help Betty Castor get elected to the U.S. Senate, and she was here for a fund-raiser on Friday.
Of course, my roots in the environmental community mean that I attend a lot of events with advocacy groups. Last night I went to a dinner celebrating 35 years of the Florida Defenders of the Environment, and chatted with Charlie Crist, our state’s Republican attorney general, as well as Buddy MacKay, our most recent Democratic governor (he took over the last few weeks of Lawton Chiles’ term upon his death) and Lt. Governor.
During less electoral times, I spent most of my time with city and county staff, citizen groups, developers, business leaders, activists, school kids, college kids … pretty much a broad cross-section of the community. I’m a real believer in thoughtful land-use and transportation planning, so I interact a lot with our city’s planners, as well as with high quality developers.
I’ve been fortunate to get elected each time with a very diverse support base, so am invited to all kinds of events and meetings. I particularly like to work with the African-American community, and spend a lot of time trying to close racial and economic divides in Gainesville.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
People who are unkind, unprofessional, and/or dishonest are tiresome, regardless of their issue, institutional role, or political perspective. I’ve seen people hurt their cause more than help it through plain old bad behavior. If you want to influence the process, you need to build relationships, credibility, and mutual respect. People who feel disenfranchised from their government can understandably become angry and lash out, but I’d argue that this rarely contributes to political victory. A movement or organization is better served by having those motivated by anger to find a role where that’s a useful and productive attribute. People who are at the negotiating table, at public events, or otherwise “inside the tent” need to be skilled at human interaction. It is really disappointing when people attack others with false information. Sadly, you see this often in the public realm, and it degrades the process. I advise activists who lobby legislators or commissioners to focus on the next vote, not the last vote. If you hold grudges it’ll prohibit you from making headway, but if you keep working at building allies, eventually you will.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Lately I’ve been dealing with a lot of folks who work for or represent Wal-Mart, and they’re generally real nice folks. Wal-Mart is trying to site at least two Supercenters in Gainesville. We turned down their first request on a vote of 5-2, but they’re coming back with another plan shortly.
In contrast, I don’t think Wal-Mart’s policies are nice at all. For example, their part-time employees (a big portion of their workforce) aren’t eligible for health coverage until they have two years on the job. That seems like inhumane behavior from the world’s largest corporation.
In general, businesspeople are nicer and present themselves more professionally than activists. This is unfortunate, as I normally feel sympathetic to the causes of activists, and disappointed when I see them exhibit ineptitude in lobbying and affecting public policy. I suppose this is because people who behave like jerks in business are probably not going to be all that successful.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born here in Gainesville at Alachua General Hospital, about two miles from where I live now. My 1941 home, which is on the local historic register, is located seven blocks directly north of the University of Florida football stadium (known as “The Swamp,” to Gator fans worldwide!). Gainesville’s one of those towns that brings people back to it again and again. Some of my high school friends got away for college and their early careers and are now moving back.
Although I’ve lived in the same town my whole life, I do strongly believe in traveling to gain a broader perspective. When I was a kid, my parents took my three siblings and me to Europe for six months. We lived in West Berlin, close to the wall, for much of that time. I also lived in Madison, Wis. for a summer — a truly great college town!
The business and government leaders of Gainesville visit other cities regularly to mine ideas and gain insight. This year we visited Norfolk, Va. and New Haven, Conn. Norfolk is a great example of a city that rebuilt its downtown after the urban core was abandoned. New Haven and Yale present a great example of Town-Gown cooperation between the city and the university. This is something I’m working on with our new university president, Bernie Machen (so far, a great guy!). In the past we’ve also visited Austin, Texas (where we got the idea for our technology incubator), Seattle (where we met with Nordstrom officials), Portland (where we studied their growth management and regional administration), Chattanooga (where we borrowed their model for a design center), and Lexington (where we learned about city/county consolidation). Our friends in Tallahassee visited Madison this year, and some of us are thinking of taking a road trip to Athens, Ga. soon.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
In about 1982, while in high school, I had the opportunity to travel to the U.S. EPA in Washington, D.C., with a woman engineer who was mentoring me. It was before the final adoption of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the nation’s primary body of law regulating treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. My mentor was serving on an advisory committee for the final RCRA rulemaking. I took careful notes, even got up the nerve to ask a question, and later wrote a report on the meeting that my boss sold to a client. For a 16- year-old-kid, that was a pretty exciting experience. At that point I knew I wanted to work to help protect the environment. Looking back on it, it is absolutely stunning that this nation didn’t have substantial hazardous waste regulations until about 20 years ago. It seemed important to me at the time because it was important to our nation. Although there’s much progress yet to be made, we have come a long way since then.
These days I’m mostly motivated by environmental-justice issues, and their social and economic implications. Many of our worst environmental legacies are located in communities of color. In Gainesville, we’re working on restoring a brownfield site that is located in a historically African-American neighborhood. It’ll be a beautiful park with a lake when we’re done.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
When I worked for the county, some of my supervisors had a tendency to spin, censor, and control information. In one instance, when I was about 26, I was called into a manager’s office to explain how a group of citizens who were opposing a construction and demolition landfill project had obtained some accurate information regarding the proposed project. Apparently the owners of the site had complained to a commissioner that the opponents had reviewed their plans. “The citizens called me and asked for the data, and I provided it to them,” I answered. Since Florida has a public records law, this was exactly what I should have done. “Well, you don’t need to return their phone calls again,” the supervisor said. I responded, “It would be hard for me to know whose phone calls shouldn’t be returned. Why don’t you write me a memo explaining which citizens’ calls shouldn’t be returned, and I’ll be happy to follow your directions. Until that time, I plan to answer all my calls.” Needless to say, I never got that memo, and didn’t work there too much longer. In the final analysis it was useful for me to withstand the kind of pressure that government engineers, scientists, and planners often experience. It gives me some sympathy for the difficulty of their jobs.
What’s been the best?
My most recent election was pretty exciting. I took almost 57 percent of the vote against a worthy opponent, one of Gainesville’s most prominent businessmen.
Another great experience was writing a successful $2.88 million grant application to buy 240 acres at Blues Creek Ravine and Fox Pond. Alachua Conservation Trust and the Trust for Public Land worked together to make this happen with funding from the Florida Communities Trust, a state land acquisition program. It is incredibly gorgeous property, and when I walk on that land, I think to myself, “This forest will be here forever, long after I’m gone.” It’s a great feeling to do something that’ll outlive us all. The land’s owner is a really sweet lady who held onto the property for decades, and it was wonderful to help her create a preserve and still have something to pass on to her children.
What’s on your desk right now?
- The receipt for repair of my platinum engagement ring, which was crushed while moving furniture away from the windows during Hurricane Frances.
- Little notes from each of the competitors in “The Intern,” explaining which of the other contestants they would cut tomorrow, and why.
- Plans for a proposed redevelopment project for the corner of University Avenue and 13th Street, one of our main intersections, and a letter I’ve drafted to the head of the Florida DEP (Colleen Castille, a friend of mine) asking for help in cleaning up the groundwater underneath the site.
- A picture of John Kerry and me taken in Jacksonville last month. I’ve been planning to write a note on it and mail it to my sister, who until this weekend had been wavering on whether to vote for Kerry or not at all (this has been a real source of angst in our family … ). Luckily she had a revelation that she must vote for Kerry after all, as she’s worried about the situation in Iraq and the possibility of reinstating the draft. Thank God!
- Campaign Literature for “Better Parks, Better Roads,” two tax initiatives we’re trying to pass on Nov. 2.
- A list of places the Young Democrats want people to show up wearing T-shirts that say “Vote Naked, Ask Me How” (I am assuming that’s an absentee balloting initiative.)
- Lots of other stuff not worth mentioning …
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Probably the thing that most pained me was the construction of a huge cement plant within a few miles of the Ichetucknee River. The Ichetucknee is a gorgeous spring-fed river unlike anything you can imagine. It is crystal clear, and at night during certain times of year there are fireflies all around it. Gov. Bush and his former Environmental Protection Secretary actually came out and canoed down the river, and made an initial attempt to deny the permit, then ultimately reached agreement to issue it. I testified against it during court hearings, but don’t doubt that it met the state’s minimal requirements. It is just so unfortunate to have such a heavy industrial use at this pristine location. Aside from the substantial air-pollution impact (and deposition of pollutants to the water), it is frankly an indicator that there are plans afoot to cover this part of the state with concrete, given that we’ve already paved over much of south and central Florida.
Who is your environmental hero?
Paul Wellstone was both an environmental and a political hero to me. He was always someone you could count on to stand by his principles, and represent the interests of regular people. An ally from the Minnesota League of Conservation Voters gave me a button I love, which reads “WWWD: What Would Wellstone Do?” The day he died I was just devastated. My sister, who lives in Minnesota, called in tears, although more than once she started a conversation with me by saying something along the lines of “Liberals like you and Paul Wellstone are always …” She and I had met Sen. Wellstone at the Minnesota State Fair many years ago, and I always cherished that photo.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
I suppose it would have to be the oil and auto industries that continually fight fuel-efficiency standards and work to convince us that we ought to be driving Hummers, Escalades, and other Valdez-type vehicles.
What’s your environmental vice?
I’m a slave to fashion. I love clothes and shoes, and prioritize looking good over avoiding consumption and dry cleaning.
How do you get around?
I drive most of the time, though I bike and walk when possible, usually to UF. We have a great transit system in Gainesville, one of the best in Florida, but my schedule doesn’t really allow me to use it much. Luckily I only live about two miles from City Hall, so I don’t drive excessively.
What are you reading these days?
OK, guilty pleasure, I’m reading Bill Clinton’s book. The guy is an incredible genius with an amazing memory. I’m about a third of the way through. At this rate I’ll finish it sometime in 2006, particularly considering that it is way too heavy to take on business trips. Today John Edwards’ photographer, who worked in the Clinton White House, told me that Washingtonians suggest buying the book on tape. “Clinton reads it himself, which is great, and it’s been abridged.”
What’s your favorite meal?
There’s a really cool restaurant/bar in Gainesville called “The Top,” and the best thing there is actually called “That Spicy Thai Peanut Coconut Dish.” It’s tempeh, asparagus, and rice. Not at all South Beach. I also love veggie pad thai at Tim’s Thai in Gainesville. Noticing a trend here?
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
I read the Gainesville Sun (a New York Times paper), Newsweek, the headlines on AOL, and watch C-SPAN at all hours (right now, it’s almost 1:00 am, and Tony Blair is busy trying to defend his Iraq policy here in my family room!). During extraordinary circumstances, I’ll also read other Florida papers online. Here’s the order of interest: The St. Pete Times, The Miami Herald, The Tallahassee Democrat, The Orlando Sentinel, The Tampa Tribune, The Palm Beach Post, and The Pensacola News Journal. I even read the Jacksonville Times Union on occasion, to see what the conservative press is saying. It’s pretty far right, in my view. People are always saying to me, “Did you see such and such in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post?” The answer is no. I live in Florida. We don’t read those papers down here! I also don’t seek out too much in the alternative press, but luckily friends and listservs are always sending me links to stories, which is great. (Actually, they send links to the NYT, WSJ and WP too, under which circumstances I will read what is sent … like the Post series on The Nature Conservancy. Yikes.)
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m a vegetarian, and have been for around a decade. OK, technically I’m a pescatarian. I do eat fish, but not much. I wish I could give it up, but it’s just too good. I do at least try to be conscious not to eat those that are most damaging or endangered.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
That’s a tough one, as there are so many. I love the Ichetucknee River and Blues Creek Ravine, which I mentioned above, the St. Johns River, the mountains of Appalachia, Vancouver Island, the Greek Islands, the Cliffs of Mohr in Ireland, Florida’s Gulf Coast, and the still-wild parts of the Atlantic Coast as well.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I’d require electric hybrid technology in all cars, or at least much stronger fuel-efficiency standards. Can I also require more serious and enforceable growth-management requirements, to protect more natural and agricultural lands and create more compact cities? To me these things go hand-in-hand. Land-use patterns and wasteful transportation practices are closely linked.
Who do you think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
I’m a huge Kerry-Edwards supporter, and feel really optimistic about this election. I’ve met both of the senators, and attended the Democratic National Convention in Boston this summer. Having worked on every Democratic presidential election since Jimmy Carter’s campaign, I am really energized and excited this time around, and am especially impressed by the participation of young people and others who have felt previously disenfranchised. These folks don’t show up in the public opinion polls. They aren’t considered “likely voters,” and many of them don’t have landline telephones. We’re going to win this one.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Sure. It’s not the only label I think fits, though. You know, research shows that people respond more positively to the word “conservationist” than to the word “environmentalist.” It’s worth thinking about why that is — perhaps it sounds more stable, less wacky?
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Probably the Beatles. Probably still the Beatles.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Sorry to be so predictable, but that would have to be West Wing. My favorite movie is a biking film called Breaking Away. It’s set in an Indiana college town, and talks about the divide between the college and the city, and the fact that if you live in a college town, you keep getting older but the college kids stay the same age.
Mac or PC?
PC. Nowadays the question should be “Dell, Blackberry, Ipaq, or Treo?” The answer to that one is Dell Axim. But I’m looking at the others.
What are you happy about right now?
My husband Tony is really good to me. I mean really good.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Donate to your local land trust. They do a lot more tangible good than most groups. Don’t have a local land trust? Then donate to Alachua Conservation Trust. Oh, and vote, of course. Check out your state Conservation Voter League to learn how and who to support. In Florida it’s the Florida Conservation Alliance, or see the national League of Conservation Voters.
Mean Green Pegeen
I’m intrigued but saddened by your characterization of activists as largely unprofessional, and I wince at its implications. If a friendly, suave, professional-looking lobbyist is taken more seriously even by politicians like yourself who are sympathetic to the cause, what does this mean for less-professional-looking enviros and activists attempting to influence public policy? Is image all that matters? — Name not provided
Certainly there are exceptions, but the most effective lobbyists I know (locally, in Tallahassee, and in Washington) all work hard to maintain a professional demeanor. I’m not referencing “image” as much as “attitude.” The people who are most effective at shaping public policy offer help to the elected officials, socialize with them, make them feel good about what they are doing, and so on. This isn’t that different from the rest of life. For example, when you are trying to get a good deal on a house or a car, do you berate and attack the person selling it? Of course not. You try to ingratiate yourself, be nice, build a relationship, offer to pay cash, whatever. Politics is no different. The currency isn’t always cash (except as allowed by law …), it’s also information, access, influence, volunteer assistance in re-election campaigns, etc.
However, on the matter of image, it’s fair to say that humans are naturally drawn to people who share characteristics with themselves. If your state’s legislature is full of people who wear Birkenstocks and T-shirts, then by all means, dress like that. But if your legislature is full of people wearing business suits or cowboy hats and boots, then you’re handicapping yourself the minute you walk in the door, almost like wearing a big sign that says, “You and I don’t have much in common: My values are not your values.” To me, if environmentalists really want to change public policy, then we need to:
- Donate to campaigns (note that you can raise plenty of money by “bundling” small donations together).
- Volunteer for campaigns (this is often more valuable than cash).
- Send as your spokesperson someone who already has a relationship with the decision makers, or someone as similar to them as possible.
- Get your facts straight. Don’t lie or exaggerate.
- Be nice, initiate social contact, attend mixers, and join clubs that the decision makers are in.
Frankly, some of us would rather be on our high horse than win. That’s a big, selfish sellout for the environment if you ask me. If our issues are that important, then we need to get our act together and do what it takes to create change. It’s true that under fortunate circumstances we can change policy through citizen activation: writing, calling, emailing, and showing up. But for every one time that happens, there are 100 times that policies are quietly changed behind the scenes by those in the know (which, for the record, ain’t us!).
Most social and environmental activists think elected officials are going to do things for purely altruistic reasons, because “it’s the right thing.” The problem with that perspective is that with very few exceptions, the person on the other side of your issue is making an equally appealing argument, and also helping the decision maker raise campaign donations, find volunteers, put out press releases, and attend the best social events in the capital. You can’t compete with all that with nothing more than your version of the truth on your side. For example:
You say: Passing that bill will pollute our air.
They say: Passing that bill will provide jobs with benefits, reduce poverty, and still protect the air. Oh, did you like that new volunteer I sent over to your campaign headquarters?
See the difference?
I know that most people reading this are saying, “Well, that’s ridiculous.” Frankly, I agree. But that’s how it works. Note that campaign finance reform might help, but not altogether: No one would ban volunteers, or information exchange, or social contacts, which mean as much as cash. It takes a huge amount of time and money to get elected to public office. If you’re not helping, or are even hurting the official you’re seeking to influence, then you’re at a strategic disadvantage relative to those who do this well and care enough about their issue or their paycheck to prioritize actually being effective.
What can citizens do to try to stem the tide of random growth and poor planning that seems inevitable, particularly with regards to government “planning commissions” that never seem to meet a development they don’t like? — Charles Rettiger, Gainesville, Ga.
Fellow Gainesvillian (your Gainesville is lovely, too!),
To me, the best solution to bad growth is to get better people elected to office. Here’s why:
The elected officials appoint the planning commissioners, set transportation priorities, and approve or deny development requests. It’s hard enough to get decent elected officials to do the right thing, much less bad ones (see more on this issue below). The only hope for stemming the tide of sprawl and “anywhere U.S.A.” schlock is to adopt strong regulations for growth management and land development, both at the state and local level.
One of the difficulties of obtaining good local standards is that state legislatures normally dictate the basic framework for planning and transportation funding. Due to the influence of money in politics, local officials and state legislatures are typically heavily skewed toward builders, developers, and landowners, over citizen activists or environmentalists.
The toughest part is to find candidates who are both willing and able. Usually the willing aren’t able, and the able aren’t willing. But once you have a viable candidate, the rest is comparatively easy. The thing that’s most difficult to overcome is the gap in what a grassroots candidate can easily raise in comparison to a corporate candidate. Fortunately, though, groups like MoveOn.org and candidates like Howard Dean are showing us that a larger number of smaller donations can be just as powerful as the opposite.
It’s important to remember that no matter how great a single politician may be, he or she needs allies to actually get anything done. When people ask what it takes to get something passed on the seven-member City Commission, the answer’s simple: a motion, a second, and two more votes. If your legislature has 120 members, you need 61 who’ll vote the right way.
That said, it’s hard sometimes to know exactly what it means to vote the right way. While I’m a big believer in new urbanism, quality infill, and historic preservation as antidotes to sprawl, it seems to me that few developers in our area have actually figured out how to do these things well. It’s also important to remember that most Americans really don’t prioritize environment protection over, say, green lawns, cheap power, and free-flowing traffic. That’s why it’s important to both continually educate the public and look for opportunities to build alliances with people whose primary issues may be different from your own. Even great environmentalists have to be able to appeal to voters in other ways.
I am finishing my environmental policy B.A. What kind of classes, education, or experience would you recommend for your kind of job? What’s a good way to get started? — Evann O’Donnell, Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.
It sounds like you are well on your way to an excellent background for a career in local government. If you are considering graduate school, you may want to look into urban and regional planning. This is a discipline that is mostly offered as an academic program at the master’s level. I’d recommend that you study in the state you wish to practice in, as the issues and regulations are regional in nature. If you’re interested in becoming a city or county manager or assistant manager, then a Master’s of Public Administration is your best option. These programs are often affiliated with business schools or political science programs. Most large cities and counties have internship programs available. You may want to look into whether your city offers you the opportunity to get some exposure to different departments and functions to see how you like it.
Why are you called “Pegeen” since your real name is Margaret? — Cara Anderson Rosas, Gainesville, Fla.
I get asked this all the time!
My given name is Margaret Evyleen Hanrahan. Most people called “Peggy” are actually named Margaret. In Ireland, “Pegeen” is also a nickname for Margaret. My parents gave me my full name intending to call me “Pegeen,” taking the “Peg” from Margaret (my paternal Aunt’s name) and the “-een” from Evyleen (my maternal grandmother’s name). You do see the name around occasionally. There’s an old Rosalind Russell movie called Auntie Mame that has a character named Pegeen in it. There’s a child’s book named Pegeen, and a character in Playboy of the Western World named Pegeen. There’s a fancy children’s clothes shop at Pegeen.com, and there was a famous New York Radio personality named Pegeen Fitzgerald.
Of all my names, Evyleen is my favorite, but when I wanted to call myself that as a child, my grandmother said, “Everyone deserves their own name, and that one’s mine.” She was a great lady who emigrated from Ireland shortly after the Irish Revolution. She was a bit of a revolutionary herself, and would say things to me like, “You haven’t seen real pain ’til you’ve seen the blood of your brothers running in the streets.” That would tend to shut me up from making further complaints.
When I first decided to run for office, I called the chair of the local Democratic Party and she said, “Oh, Pegeen, this is great, this is wonderful, now we have a problem with your name.” But I think it’s more a help than a hindrance in politics. The good thing about having a strange name is that once people learn it, they don’t normally forget it.
Tree cover? You’ve got tree cover? Here in Destin, Fla., we protect the trees only in tiny city parks and — get this — in the highway medians. — Timothy Mahar, Destin, Fla.
There are two things people are really passionate about in Gainesville: trees and the Gators (football, not reptiles). From the air, our tree coverage is around 67 percent, which is far higher than most Florida cities. As a result, Gainesville has the lowest per-capita energy consumption in the state. We have some very protective tree ordinances intended to save heritage trees, require replacement of those that are removed, and provide shade in parking lots. We also have a citizen Tree Advisory Board and a Tree Board of Appeals. You can see the codes of most cities on municode.com.
What, in your opinion, are Betty Castor’s chances for being elected to Florida’s open Senate seat given that she’s running against Karl Rove’s hand-picked candidate Mel Martinez? And what would a Martinez victory mean in terms of Florida’s environment? — Name not provided
The latest polls have Democrat Betty Castor and Republican Mel Martinez running neck-and-neck for the U.S. Senate. As we all know from the 2000 election, Florida is almost exactly a 50-50 state. My prediction is that Castor will beat Martinez narrowly, in the range of 51 percent to 49 percent.
Betty Castor is helped by the fact that she has been elected statewide in the past (as secretary of education) and has strong ties across the state. In addition, I generally think it is an advantage to be a woman in politics, as women are a larger part of the voting population and tend to favor women candidates. Also, it’s tougher to attack a woman in an election (not that Mel isn’t trying, and even enlisting Jeb Bush for this purpose).
On the other hand, Martinez has the advantage of being Cuban. Democrats running statewide depend on the fact that most non-Cuban Hispanics vote Democratic, but are thought to be attracted to a Hispanic candidate, so if Betty loses those crossover voters she’ll have to make it up among Republican women.
It’s true that Martinez is being helped by the Rove/Bush machine, but Betty Castor is one of the key candidates of Emily’s List, which is one of the nation’s largest and most competent political action committees. Emily’s List not only has helped Castor keep up money-wise, it also has an army of volunteers and outstanding political strategy.
One other strike against Martinez is that he ran an extremely vicious Republican primary against Bill McCollum, a quite conservative but also very decent former congressman. His attacks called McCollum “the new darling of homosexual extremists” because he had supported a hate crimes bill in Congress. It was so bad that the St. Petersburg Times actually withdrew their endorsement of Martinez. Ouch! All this makes it rather tough for Martinez to reach out to moderate Republicans and swing voters.
On a local note, the City of Gainesville had a terrible problem with Housing and Urban Development under Martinez’s leadership. Kennedy Homes, a federally funded housing complex, had severe maintenance problems to the point that the units had become dangerous for residents. The city worked hard to try to get Martinez’s attention and commitment to solve the problems, writing letters and leaving numerous messages, even via our Republican congressman and U.S. senators. The situation was never effectively resolved. When local African-American leaders recently held a press conference to raise awareness of Martinez’s inaction, he again pled ignorance of the problem. Either his office was extremely incompetent, or he’s just not telling the truth. I don’t know which it is, but either way it’s unacceptable.
Regarding your question on the impact of this election on the environment, again, you could look at it in a few different ways. In Congress, most Democrats have better voting records on the environment than most Republicans. There are of course exceptions, but I’d doubt that Martinez would be among them, as his expressed positions to date closely mimic those of the Bush administration. On the other hand, when he was an elected official in Orange County (Orlando), he led the fight to limit growth in areas with inadequate schools. This may not seem like that big of a deal, but it was well received at the time, as developers generally control the agenda in that part of Florida. It is also worth sharing that Jeb Bush is far better on the environment than his brother. He supports land conservation, restoration of the Ocklawaha River, and the Everglades project. Most politicians who run statewide in Florida, regardless of party, realize that they need to at least appear to be environmentally friendly. Castor actually is environmentally friendly. In fact, her start in public life was as a member of a grassroots organization working to clean up Tampa Bay.
What is the correlation between the Bush policies of “adapt” to global warming and your hurricane damages? How responsible should Bush be for them? — Julian Powers, Spokane, Wash.
I agree that our failure to adopt meaningful greenhouse-gas reductions not only contributes to natural disasters, but also further degrades our credibility among other nations of the world. I’m guessing, though, that the current atmospheric conditions have roots that reach before the Bush administration and will extend beyond it as well.
Interestingly enough, one of the first public officials in Florida who advocated addressing global warming was U.S. Senator Bill Nelson. I first met him more than 10 years ago, when he was the state’s insurance commissioner. After Hurricane Andrew hit Miami and destabilized our insurance industry, Nelson took a real interest in the correlations you reference.
How do you manage the relationship between residents of Gainesville and the huge college student population at the University of Florida? Also, do you find that college students are better or worse stewards of the environment than proper townsfolk? — Name not provided
This is one of the biggest, toughest issues in a city like ours. The National League of Cities has a University Communities Caucus, made up of elected and appointed officials from college towns across America. We get together and talk about the effects on our citizens from things like drinking on game weekends, loud parties, parking near campus, occupancy limits for rental homes, and bar closing times. One major problem is that neighborhoods around campus tend to become dominated by rental homes, which can lead to a decline in the condition of the housing stock and the safety and attractiveness of the area. For example, between semesters there are so many people away on break that crime rates in these areas go way up.
Bernie Machen, our new university president, is very focused on working more closely with the community. In addition to the quality of life issues mentioned above, a university is also a huge economic engine that can lead to new start-up businesses. Our substantial medical, engineering, business, and agricultural programs have great and growing potential for technology transfer and job creation.
President Machen is well aware that the faculty, staff, and students that come to UF are choosing between Gainesville and cities like Chapel Hill, Madison, Austin, and Ann Arbor. A great university needs a great university city. We get that, and are doing everything we can to live up to the challenge. UF has a constituency and a support base that go well beyond Gainesville, though, and we do have to understand that.
You’re right that most students care a great deal about the environment, but are also focused on getting through school and getting out. There are some good groups on campus that focus on environmental issues, and many that do various types of charitable work. I think it’s important to do a lot of outreach to student organizations, and I seem to speak on campus at least once a week.
Is there a large population of environmentalists (or conservationists, as you suggest) in Gainesville? Are there many environmental organizations based there? — Name not provided
Judging from the way local elections turn out, in the city about 43 percent of the population votes consistently for liberal/environmental candidates (this is what a Green candidate took in a citywide election two years ago). In the county it’s probably a bit lower, maybe more like 35 percent.
The local Sierra Club chapter, which covers a several county area, has about 900 members. There’s also a strong Audubon chapter, focused mostly on bird watching. The statewide groups located in Gainesville are Florida Defenders of the Environment, which is focused on restoration of the Ocklawaha River, the Caribbean Conservation Corps, which does sea-turtle research, and the Florida Conservation Alliance, which is affiliated with the Federation of State Conservation Voter Leagues. There are a few staffed local organizations, such as Alachua Conservation Trust, the Conservation Trust for Florida, Sustainable Alachua County and Florida Wildlife Care. There’s also an effective political action committee called Women for Wise Growth. Note that most of these groups have at most one or two staffers. The best jobs for environmentalists here are not in nonprofit organizations, but in local or regional government (city, county, regional planning council, or water management districts), or in environmentally aware consulting firms, of which there are several.
How has your environmental background influenced your decision making as mayor? Do you promote the use of renewable energy sources either within your city offices or among your constituents? Does your city have a good recycling program? How have you dealt with urban sprawl? — Name not provided
My background is helpful in areas that directly relate to my experience in soil and groundwater remediation and land conservation. Having had local government experience as staff also is useful, because I understand how things actually work behind the scenes, which can take a while for someone outside the system to figure out.
We have a few renewable-energy initiatives, including some solar demonstration projects at schools, and capturing of the methane gas at our closed landfill as an energy source. Our city utility also promotes purchase of green energy from other generators (from windmills, for example). Customers can make a voluntary donation toward this effort. This year we’re adopting a number of new conservation programs, and are considering using biomass as part of the fuel mix in the new generating capacity being planned. Our utility is primarily pushing use of clean coal technology, because of cost and fuel availability considerations. We’re holding meetings on Nov. 1 and 15 to weigh the pros and cons on this. The newer air-pollution control technology will reduce most contaminant levels, with the notable exception of carbon dioxide. I’m not convinced yet that this is the way to go, and have suggested pulling together an objective expert panel to give advice on all the possible alternatives. This is a classic economics vs. environment issue. Natural gas is far cleaner (and is the fuel source we used when we re-powered our peaking plant a few years ago, which I was an advocate for), but is also far more expensive.
We do have a reasonably good recycling program. Our curbside collection picks up aluminum, glass, plastic, newspaper, magazines, and cardboard. There are local outlets that collect white paper, Styrofoam, and plastic and paper bags. We also have mandatory commercial recycling, but could use a better-funded enforcement program.
Gainesville covers about 54 square miles, roughly 5 percent of the land mass of Alachua County, but over 50 percent of the residents and over 60 percent of the jobs are in the city limits. The sprawl is mostly in the unincorporated area outside the city, so our primary efforts toward sprawl control are to work toward increasing quality of life in the city, encouraging infill that restores urban areas, and funneling transportation funding toward projects that enhance transit and human-scaled roads in already built areas, rather than oversized roads to nowhere. Alachua County’s comprehensive plan is probably better than most in Florida, but still allows too much suburban growth in areas that are and should be high-quality agricultural and natural areas. Our best hope is to try to insure that the true costs of that growth are covered up front and not subsidized, that we buy as much public land as we can afford, and encourage voluntary clustering and agricultural conservation easements.
It is also worth noting that most families choose where to live based on school districts, so it’s important to try to make sure that the best schools are in the urban areas, not the far-flung suburbs. Fortunately, our school board has been visionary in placing the most prestigious magnet programs in otherwise underprivileged schools. While this hasn’t changed the development patterns per se, it probably has kept those schools from falling into decline.