The Curious Case of the Torrance Enivornmental Commission

scoop1I attended the first 2009 meeting of the Torrance Environmental Quality and Energy Conservation Commission last Thursday night and it was curiously different from anything I expected.

First of all, I was the only member of the public who attended the meeting. Secondly, the energy level, enthusiasm and sense of urgency I’ve experienced at other environmental meetings was nowhere to be found among the Commissioners. Maybe they all wished they were watching the Lakers-Celtics game that night instead…

Your Greenius already knew the Lakers would beat down Boston, so my focus was fixed on what was going down in the room.

altoids-first-timeI’ll admit that my expectations were based on my experiences with the South Bay Green Task Force, the Manhattan Beach Environmental Task Force and the other environmental organizations whose meetings, workshops and presentations I attend.   Since this was the very first time I’ve attended one of these Torrance Enviro Commission meetings, I’m thinking maybe this is way they roll and I’m just an oddball for expecting something different.

I certainly felt like the odd man being the only person in the audience, and it gave the entire two and a half hour meeting a certain private performance aspect.  There were six Commissioners present and three City of Torrance staff members.  I introduced myself to Linda Cessna, the lead staff member, and someone I’ve been corresponding with since last year about the City’s participation in the the new solar financing program, AB 811.  Linda is the Deputy Community Development Director of the City of Torrance and the staff liaison with the commission.

Now if your Creative Greenius was a commission member (something not likely to happen in this lifetime, but I’ll keep applying) and one solitary person who I had never seen before, sat in the front row and comprised the entire audience for the evening, I might say “hello” to that person, maybe ask who they were, perhaps welcome them and thank them for coming.  I might even go so far as to relate to them once or twice over the course of a few hours.  But hey, that’s just me.  I’m a fairly friendly guy.  And clearly I’m a guy who still has lessons in humility and selflessness to learn because none of that happened.  But I didn’t find it disconcerting –  merely curious.

Fortunately there was one other person in the room who made my attendance time very well spent.  The primary item on the evening’s agenda was a presentation by Tracy Drake, the manager of the Madrona Marsh Nature Center.

madraona-sign1I’ve met Tracy before at the Marsh where I’ve volunteered and done plant restoration.  It’s been a great place to spend Earth Day in the past.  I’m a proud member of the Friends of the Madrona Marsh and to tell you the truth I don’t think you can seriously call yourself an environmentalist if you live around here and don’t support the Friends.

Why?  The Madrona Marsh is the most significant environmental venue in the City of Torrance. It was literally rescued from becoming a condo development after a long history as an oil drilling field.  Today the 42-acre Nature Preserve  is one of the last remaining vernal marshes in Southern California. The non-profit, all volunteer Friends of the Madrona Marsh group battled hard and tough throughout the ’70s and ’80s to save this irreplaceable natural habitat from the blind and soulless developers who turn nature into concrete.

It’s a spectacular success story and Tracy Drake is one of the reasons why.  As great a resource as the Marsh is, Tracy is an equally great advocate for it.  If you saw her with Huell Howser on his California Gold series on PBS you know what I mean.madrona-marsh1

She proved it once again at this meeting where she gave a engrossing slide show presentation overview of the Marsh and its significant history for the commissioners.  We were watching Tracy’s PowerPoint in a room within one mile of the Marsh, but its a good thing she had photos because it seemed obvious that the majority of the commissioners had never been there in person.

If you ask the Greenius, that should have disqualified any of those commissioners from serving on any environmental board or commission in the city of Torrance.  You can’t legitimately call yourself a Torrance environmentalist if you’ve never been to the Marsh.  And if you’re not an environmentalist in this era of climate crisis, then you have no business being appointed to the Environmental Quality and Energy Saving Commission.

I only heard one commissioner talk about ever volunteering at the Marsh.  I also heard one commissioner talk with pride about having visited the website for the Marsh.  Curiously she offered this with no note of irony.  When she said that, I wondered if I was eligible to serve on a White House commission since I’ve been on their website many times.

I didn’t hear any of the commissioners say that they were members of the Madrona Marsh friends group either.  Perhaps they’re all members and just too shy to say so.  But I wouldn’t bet on that if I were you.

finalupAnd since the reason Tracy Drake was at the meeting and giving her presentation to the commissioners was because the Marsh’s nature center is the proposed site of the Torrance Environmental Fair to be held in June – or maybe some other time, they’re not really sure yet – the lack of Friends among the Commissioners was also very curious – from both a courtesy and a business smarts point of view.

Allow me to be so bold as to recommend that all seven commissioners come up with at least the $10 it costs to be an individual member or the paltry $20 it costs for a family.  Since each commissioner gets ten bucks for every meeting they attend they won’t have to dig into personal funds and can just use the tax money citizens like me already supply.

Things got even curiouser after Tracy left and the commission turned their attention to their upcoming March 10 joint session with the Torrance City Council.  As the commissioners discussed what each of them was responsible for presenting and went over their content, their lack of subject matter expertise, focus and organization was what stood out most.  If you’re counting on this group to have the perspective, energy or sense of urgency necessary to provide the service the citizens of Torrance need in this time of climate crisis then you’re in trouble.

Only two of the six commissioners present appeared to have their act together or have a grasp on the subject they’ll be presenting on March 10.  There was plenty of confusion, distractions and a real reluctance to do anything more than the minimum.  One commissioner announced he would not be able to present his material because he wouldn’t be at the joint session.  He had no guidance or resources to offer the person who volunteered to take over his presentation.  Another commissioner tried to give himself a pep talk about not being afraid to speak about energy conservation since after all that was part of the commission’s name.  Yet another commissioner went off on a long tangent about being at Obama’s inauguration and how the unprecedented cold weather in DC was real proof of climate change.  It was obvious she didn’t know the difference between weather and climate. Thankfully someone corrected her and reminded that commissioner of the Reagan inauguration that was moved indoors because of the frigid temperatures in the 1980s.

Beyond the lack of subject matter competence, overall I saw tremendous timidity and a lack of leadership displayed.  If we didn’t already have our backs up against the wall when it comes to Torrance’s environmental quality and our energy conservation issues it wouldn’t matter so much.  But it DOES matter because we DO have our backs up against the wall  and I don’t think anyone on this commission gets that.  And I don’t have an ounce of confidence in this group’s ability to either advise the city council or the citizens of Torrance about what our environmental situation really is or what to do about it.

I don’t care if this post isn’t politically correct or hurts my chances of ever being on this commission, because those concerns should be irrelevant now. We don’t have the luxury of time any more to treat this commission with kid gloves or give them credit for good intentions or the time they volunteer.  The work they are supposed to be doing is too important, the hour too late and the penalties of failure too great for me play fluffer for these folks.  Good intentions and political connections are not good enough anymore.  Competence counts.

So I’m going to be at all future meetings of the Environmental Quality and Energy Conservation Commission and I’m going to tell it like it is about what happens at those meeting and what doesn’t happen.  I’m going to be holding this group to a higher standard than the city council or the local newspaper does.

And if the commissioners think I’m being unfair or I’ve got things wrong then I invite them to create a blog and share their thoughts with the public.  In fact, even if they’re not interested in anything I have to say they should have a blog and start reaching out, interacting and engaging the citizens of Torrance on the issues they’re supposed to be responsible for.

I find it most curious indeed that they spend so much time talking among only themselves.

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9 thoughts on “The Curious Case of the Torrance Enivornmental Commission

  1. Sounds like a truly odd and disappointing meeting. Thanks for reminding me about our local treasure, the Madrona Marsh Preserve. I’ve got $10 and will be joining the friends today!

  2. What the heck, I decided to splurge and just signed up as a “patron” of the Friends of Madrona Marsh ($35 — and it’s money well spent!)

    Greenius: Thanks so much, Kaaren. Very generous of you in these hard times. And you’re right, it IS money very well spent. Behold the power of the blog! Less than an hour after this post appeared, money starts to flow…

  3. Yo Creative Greenius – I’m usually more surprised when they are engaged (perhaps I’m a cynic). This seems much more mildly stated than the situation calls for, but that’s just me.

    Greenius – Well you know what Lily Tomlin says, “No matter how cynical I get, I find I can’t keep up.” That being said, I DID in fact state things mildly and respectfully because this was my first meeting. Maybe I caught these folks on a night when they weren’t on top of their game and they’ll rise to the occassion in March. We shall certainly see… and tell.

  4. Joe,
    Good to hear your voice on an important subject
    like this. Please put me on your list.

    The world needs your enthusiasm, wit and concern.

    Respectfully,
    brad white

    Greenius: Thanks Brad, appreciate your kind words. I don’t know if the world needs what I’ve got, but I know Torrance sure does!

  5. How in holy Hell did those idiots get on the Commission?

    Greenius: Melonie, while I understand your anger, I can’t agree that these people are “idiots.” They all seemed like decent people and none of them struck me as unintelligent or stupid in any way. I just don’t think the majority of them have done the study or research to gain the knowledge and expertise they need to do the job. As to how they got on the Commission, all commissioners are appointed by the City Council and it’s a basic political process. Once you get on the Commission you get rubber stamped until all possible terms run out – unless you actually insult members of the public and embarrass the Council like one of the Airport Commissioners did last year. He was one of the very rare Commissioners not to get his rubber stamp. There won’t be an open seat on the Enviro Commission until 2011.

  6. Pingback: The Greenius Goes Into Overdrive « Creative Greenius

  7. The conclusion to draw from this blog is that the Torrance Environmental Commission needs the citizens’ help to make the Environmental Fair a huge hit. They need a serious, serious publicity effort. They need money to make things happen in a big way, and that money may not come from the City. If you live in Torrance, and if you have any interest in the sensible use of energy and resources, you have to commit your efforts to this event, plain and simple (this means you).

    Greenius,
    Well David, that’s ONE conclusion to draw, but not necessarily the correct one. Since you yourself are renown for having to work at nervous breakdown levels of effort to pull off the EPN Energy Fairs, perhaps your take is more obsessive than the one I’m choosing to follow. Perhaps that’s why the EPN chose not to be responsible for the Energy Fair this year when you were no longer available to perform your Herculean tasks to produce it.

    There are many more viable avenues Torrance residents can take if they’re interested in energy and resources than trying to drag the Torrance Environmental Quality Commission kicking and screaming into the 21st century reality of climate change. When a city like Torrance sets themselves up for failure even after setting the bar as low as it can possibly go, there’s no reason to jump onto that sinking ship with them.

    You yourself know that in order to do this kind of event the right way it needs at least six months of advance work leading up to the day it occurs. 8-10 months is even better. Torrance will spend a couple of months at best and do so at a half-assed pace. They have neither the staff time or interest in doing anything better. And they also had to have their arms twisted to even focus on energy or include any speakers or forum.

    The agenda of Torrance is more about celebrating the environment then it is educating the public about urgent environmental issues. So I’m concerned about the potential for this to be a greenwashing environmental event, long on marketing opportunities for anyone who wants to claim their business is green, and short on any real environmental expertise or quality control of vendors. Pardon me if I don’t jump on board with both feet to spend my time supporting that approach.

    This is not the EPN’s Energy Fair and I believe it would be foolish to behave as if it were.

  8. This is typical of Torrance leadership in general. Everyone is afraid to have an original idea for fear of offending the very powerful Mayor and City Manager. The commissions in Torrance are the dues one must pay to eventually run for City Council. No qualifications needed – only political connections. Appointments are made to repay for political support or to ensure future support. Some people apply for Commission so that their own personal agenda is met – I’ll vote for yours if you vote for mine. Others are just puppets for the puppet master Mayor. The City desperately needs fresh new leadership at all of the Management levels. The current leaders have old tired ideas and squash any ideas that require effort as they don’t have the energy to move them forward. Any programs that they do bring forward are just “window dressing” and lack any substance or depth…just like the environmental fair. They can say that had one. Who cares what was there or if anyone shows up. They put on a fair and it will look good on paper. The City Manager is one of the highest paid and longest serving City Managers in the state, and the country. He knows how to play the game with smoke and mirrors. Good luck in trying to get anything done in this city. Many have tried and were either squashed in the process or tired of the apathy.

    From the Greenius:
    Thanks for all that insight Jo Jo. Torrance is a very interesting city. And it certainly does seem expertly wired. That’s why I have no intention of dealing directly with the folks in charge. Community activism doesn’t require the participation of the people in office or the employees working for the city. All it requires is a handful of talented, smart citizens who know how to motivate and inspire the public. I promise you I will neither be squashed nor will I lose interest.

  9. Why don’t you run for City Council? I volunteer to be your Press Relations manager and I know a very good grassroots campaign manager, if we can find some seed money. Here’s the bumper sticker:

    “MR. JOE… HE’S THE GREEN WAY TO GO!”

    From the Greenius:
    You’re a pretty funny lady Melonie, but the last job I want is a role on the Torrance City Council. I like being an independent activist and spending my time working on the issues I care about. I would not dig wasting my time raising the ridiculous amounts of money required to run for even a local Torrance City office or having to compromise with other elected officials and staffers who have no intention of doing the right thing. There are old school entrenched interests in this city who I’m never going to have any impact with and who I’m never going to engage with because I like being productive even more than I like being combative.

    I don’t want the job of any city councilperson, I just want any of the city councilperson to do the job they already have. And as a citizen in good standing I have every right to that expectation.

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