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Four finalists for city’s Chief Sustainability Officer meet with public

Friday, June 4, 2010 by Michael Kanin

Instead of the “two or three” finalists for the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) position that Austinites were promised (see In Fact Daily, June 3), they got four: Lucia Athens, Dennis Murphy, Beth Pratt, and Matt Watson were introduced to the public yesterday afternoon after what Austin Energy human resources consultant Edna Santos said were “excellent interviews” from each of the finalists.


“(They) are very, very bright individuals with a lot of sustainability background, so we wanted the public to look at them, to talk to them, to give us their feedback,” she said.


The two forums, one at 2:30pm and one at 5pm, represented the only formal opportunity for the community to interact with the finalists. This morning, each of the final four candidates will have an hour-long interview with City Manager Marc Ott. A final decision is expected within three weeks.


Athens stressed her Texas roots and a background in sustainability that stretches back to her graduate work at the University of Texas. There, she says, she “basically made up this program called sustainable design.”


“It was an independent study program in the architecture school,” she said. “I think people didn’t quite know what I was doing at the time…whether through good fortune or just because the time was right, sustainability (has) really come into its own since then.”


Murphey told the room that, as Kansas City’s Chief Environmental Officer, he’d been “trying to push the agenda forward on climate protection and sustainability.” That included the development of a climate protection plan for that city. During that process, Murphey said that he worked with “a wide range of community representatives.”


“We wanted to have a group of community leaders that represented a broad range of stakeholders that were important to actually implement, in a meaningful way, our greenhouse gas reduction measures,” he said.


Kansas City’s Mayor and Council eventually adopted the plan unanimously.


Pratt, who impressed a cross-section of the early session, talked about her experience with blending the concerns of the environmental world with practicalities of the business one. “I wear the label tree-hugger very proudly but I’m not…your typical one,” she said.


“I have an undergrad in the biology field…but I also have an MBA,” she added. “One of the things that really drives me in sustainability is making the two work in our world. I’ve never understood why good sustainability or environmentalism is seen as the enemy of good capitalism.”


Pratt currently serves as the Director of Environmental Affairs for Xanterra Parks and Resorts at Yellowstone National Park.


Watson, who served as an aide to former Mayor Will Wynn, was the only one of the candidates to compare himself directly to the competition. Here he invoked his long history in local regional environmental politics (see In Fact Daily, June 3, 2010). As he wrapped up he said, “I want to close by telling you something else that I think may be a little bit different about me.


“The idea of taking this job doesn’t have anything to do with professional development for me…it doesn’t have anything to do with career advancement,” he added. “Austin is my home. This for me is about putting points on the board for sustainability in Austin, and that’s why I’m here.”


For longtime environmental advocate Paul Robbins, the forums weren’t enough. At the start of the 2:30 session, he asked when members of the environmental community might get a chance for a more personal interview. Told that this wasn’t in the cards, he walked toward the back of the room, giving Council Member Bill Spelman a hard look on the way.


To that, Spelman pointed quizzically at himself and shook his head as if to say the process employed here wasn’t his idea.


Santos told In Fact Daily that many environmentalist organizations and representatives from various boards and commissions had taken part in the public process that led up to the city’s eventual call for resumes. “When we started looking at do we want a community group,” she said, the city was forced, thanks to a hefty amount of internal interest, to limit the direct interviews to city staff that would be affected in a “day-to-day” manner by the officer.


The city’s Human Resources Director, Mark Washington, added that “because of the broad interest, it was difficult to have a small group (of concerned private parties) represent the interests of the larger community.”

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