EMH&T's Goode Authors IACT Article
2/28/2013 - Indianapolis: As published in the January/February 2013 issue of Action Lines, a publication of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns
A Shift in Thinking
Awareness and attitudes about environmental protection have changed in the past 16 years among Indiana communities
By Josh Goode
IACT provides many vital functions for its members while advocating for policies that are good for municipalities and against policies that would harm them. IACT offers other services, such as educating its members about issues that directly affect them. Compliance with environmental regulations as well as environmental protection and stewardship are subjects that require ongoing education.
In 1996, I was fortunate to be hired by IACT to launch a new program. The brainchild of former IACT Executive Director Mike Quinn, and with the support of friends at US EPA and IDEM, the Environmental Circuit Rider was established for IACT in 1996. It was readily apparent that newly-elected municipal officials struggled with the complexities of environmental regulation that affected them. Quinn's idea was simple. With grant funds from EPA and IDEM, IACT would dedicate a trained professional who could work confidentially with cities and towns in an effort to identify situations of noncompliance and educate community leaders about how best to manage environmental issues. With help from Charles Anderson at the US EPA and two former IDEM Commissioners, Mike O'Conner and John Hamilton, the Circuit Rider program was born. Former Fishers Town Council President Walt Kelly provided office space for the Circuit Rider at the newly constructed Town Hall, and I set about to meet with municipal leaders, evaluate compliance with environmental regulation, advise municipalities on approaches to compliance and stewardship, and facilitate confidential communication with regulatory agencies.
What was observed in that first year of the Circuit Rider program was just as expected and suspected by IACT leaders; many problems existed in communities, and the attitude among municipalities about environmental protection was less than enthusiastic. There was plenty of confusion about environmental regulation, and there was a common undercurrent of animosity and distrust toward regulatory agencies. The feeling that economic development could not co-exist with local environmental stewardship was consistent in all corners of the state. This was a time when a large city in central Indiana was filing suit against IDEM in an effort to stop enforcement of combined sewer overflow (CSO) control regulation and for what was felt to be unacceptable and unattainable water quality standards that drove the CSO requirements. Environmental awareness was quite often pathetic, and attitudes in general were negative.
After its initial year of municipal observation, the Circuit Rider program published and distributed among its membership a 64-page publication, suitably titled Awareness and Attitudes - An Environmental Overview for Municipal Officials in Small Indiana Communities.
The publication was not without some controversy, as it was frank and honest about the attitudes toward regulatory agencies. But, municipal officials found it to be a valuable source of information and guide to better regulatory compliance and quality-of life considerations.
The Circuit Rider program did not resolve all of the challenges that were identified. However, I believe that it helped spark an evolution of local government attitudes about environmental stewardship and its relationship to quality-of-life in our communities. Many factors, such as a national shift in attitudes, high oil prices, and the enforcement-driven necessity for management changes have also influenced Hoosier municipal attitudes toward environmental stewardship. But the shift, uniquely within our state and among Indiana communities, has been dramatic in a relatively short time. While economic development was, and still is today, a major priority among municipal leaders, the last 16 years have shown proof of common ground between our local economies and good environmental stewardship...Stewardship directly impacts quality-of-life factors ... And quality of-life factors directly influence local governments' ability to attract industry and jobs.
After a decade and a half, IACT's Circuit Rider program was discontinued due to lack of funding. However, I can personally attest to the positive spinoffs from the Circuit Rider program or direct links between the program and several successful efforts and activities among IACT members. Specific examples include: two regional partnerships that connected multiple cities and towns who shared watershed basins (one led by Indianapolis covering 15 counties and one led by Fort Wayne that covered 24 counties in three states); an Environmental Strategic Partnership that helped coordinate IACT's Environmental Policy Committee for several years; and a Green Communities Awards Initiative that continues today and offers a statewide data source of municipal green programs. IACT's Circuit Rider program was directly connected to all of these efforts. Attitude shifts have been seen elsewhere. For example, the same city that was filing suit with IDEM in 1997 now employs an entire Sustainability staff, has been recognized by IACT as a Green Community several times, and just recently announced a first-in-the-nation plan to "green" its entire fleet of motorized vehicles. It would be difficult to argue that attitudes among Hoosier municipalities have not changed.
Subsequent IACT Environmental Circuit Riders have included Matthew Greller, who later became IACT's current Executive Director, and former IACT President and Tell City Mayor, Bill Goffinet. In 1997, the Council of State Governments recognized IACT at its National Conference for Innovations in Government for the Environmental Circuit Rider Program. IACT retains language in its Policy Resolutions that advocates for renewed funding of the Environmental Circuit Rider Program. Fifteen years of testimony would support the positive influence and value that the program has had on awareness and attitudes among Indiana cities and towns.
-Josh Goode, EMH&T