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Local Government
Environmental Advisory Boards

by James Harless
Program Manager,
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation

Ask a local government official if he or she would welcome another committee or board, and you will likely elicit a skeptical look. Citizens and public officials alike are leery of using committees to solve difficult problems. But, citizen committee input to elected leaders and local government staff is both undervalued and underused for a broad range of programs and services.

Basically, a citizen committee—or environmental advisory board, as they are frequently known—works with the local government on environmental concerns. Among these local program areas are public health and safety, and environmental protection and quality. I advocate more public involvement in local government—and state and federal government as well—in spite of the current prevalence of citizen apathy. Although there are many demands on the time of local officials and residents in every community, an environmental advisory committee or board requires an investment of comparatively modest time, given the importance of a community’s environmental health.

The advisory board can be established by ordinance and operate informally under bylaws and an annual work plan. As a committee, one of the goals can be to improve environmental conditions—including water quality—in ways that are both reactive and proactive.

Local Use of Advisory Units
Most people recognize that the number of issues local governments face, on which they must take direct action, is long and growing longer. Even as local authorities struggle with budgets, taxes, staffing, equipment levels, and user fees, they increasingly must confront the complex issue of community environmental quality. Nonetheless, most local governments could maximize their resources and economic viability, as well as public health and safety, by adopting an environmental agenda.

Photo Caption: Members of the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board discuss issues confronting their East Tennessee community at a January 2002 meeting.

The issues on this agenda may include water and wastewater treatment, solid waste collection or disposal, the remedial status of Superfund sites, the impact of proposed industrial development, and comprehensive resource evaluation or regulatory oversight. A local agenda might be formulated in reaction to an existing problem, to prevent future problems, or for both. The advisory committee’s agenda can be limited to one or two topics of immediate concern or priority, or address dozens of topics during each meeting.

Until recently, local governments have benefited from state and federal governments in the area of environmental protection; only now is environmental quality and protection being recognized as a local responsibility. However, local governments continue to be cautious about the topic of sponsoring an active environmental agenda.

There is evidence of an increasing need for additional local involvement to maximize information exchange and community self-direction, as well as to evaluate the complex environmental issues many communities face. After all, who knows a local community better than those who live and work there? For that matter, who has a greater investment? An optional environmental advisory board or committee is one tool that can help communities make the effort more formal, if they so desire, following an annual work plan as broad or as narrow as the local government creating the advisory board may choose.

In addition to health and safety considerations, long-term economic development cannot occur without simultaneous human and environmental resource protection. Contrary to assertions of diehard economic boosters, economic development and environmental quality are not adversaries, but instead have
a symbiotic relationship. If communities are to attract new people and new industries for future growth, adoption of an active program to protect local resources is just common sense. Both new residents and new or expanding companies are attracted to clean, healthy communities.

Every community has an interest in maximizing human and natural resources, protecting public health and safety, and promoting appropriate and sustainable economic development. Protecting each citizen, as well as the air, land, and water, is something upon which we can all agree. Most people support a clean
environment and implementing the local, state and federal programs necessary to achieve it. (See the News and Notes item “Survey Says ‘Protect the Environment’.") In this regard, an environmental quality advisory board can be instrumental to local government, not only in ensuring environmental quality, but also in preserving the community’s economic development potential.

Local Commitment to Environmental Quality
While prodevelopment interests may oppose the formation of environmental quality advisory boards, another obstacle resides in the often “chilly relationship” between environmental activists and environmental science professionals. Professionals sometimes think that citizen advocates are simply interfering in the business of conscientious, trained specialists engaged in highly technical work. Meanwhile, citizens may think professionals have failed in some way to carry out their responsibility to protect the public interest, health, or safety. But the public and environmental professionals need one another.

Another challenge to environmental quality and related issues is the changing nature of federalism in the U.S. The days of generous federal grants for expensive wastewater collection or treatment facilities have passed, replaced by state revolving loans. Such loans may be available at very reasonable interest rates, but the local utility must repay them, usually by increasing rates. In communities where environmental quality-assurance infrastructure is weak or nonexistent, these increases will be high. Accompanying higher utility rates will be increased costs and user fees to finance water and wastewater improvements, and for other infrastructure needs.

Citizens who may not have asked many questions when rates were low may become more interested and active in the coming era of cost and fee increases. Communities will require mechanisms to educate and inform citizens about the purpose of proposed rate increases and how improvements will result in either enhanced or maintained community health and environmental standards. Hence, the environmental quality advisory committee may serve an indispensable educational and public relations role in the future. It may also play a public interest role, serving as a forum for the discussion of environmental issues as they relate to utility-rate increases.

Environmental Concern Among Citizens
With rising awareness of the sources and consequences of water, air, and soil pollution, citizens of all races and socioeconomic circumstances are not shrinking from confrontation. Over the past decade, community groups have spearheaded environmental protest, targeting industrial plants and other perceived sources of pollution.

These groups not only demonstrate levels of citizen concern, but also illustrate the need for two-way communication. We cannot spend all our public resources on environmental protection. Even as activism grows, duly elected and chartered policymaking bodies require input from credible risk and health professionals to balance emotional protest with accepted science. The formation of citizen activist groups that seek to deal with issues they feel are not receiving appropriate attention is to be expected. But, if local governments were to sponsor active and effective environmental agendas, residents would be less inclined to undertake the work of environmental protection on their own, which sometimes happens even though participants do not have good information.

A well-intentioned local environmental group might succeed merely in alarming people, whereas a recognized, voluntary educational/ advisory body could serve as a stable, ongoing advocate and sounding board for townspeople. Informal environmental associations and organizations have an important role to
play—a role that could be rendered far more effective when exercised in the context of a rational local environmental agenda.

Considering the high cost industry and taxpayers pay for Superfund cleanup—well into the billions of dollars—it is evident that comprehensive site remediation will become financially impossible if we fail to stem the introduction of new toxics into the environment. This means that preventing pollution is not just about aesthetics, but about financial feasibility and the responsible use of citizen tax dollars. While local advisory boards can be employed in broadly based efforts to address existing problems, their longterm utility may be in the prevention of environmental damage.

Ten Reasons to Form an Advisory Board

There are numerous reasons why a local environmental advisory board or committee is a good idea.
Here are 10:

1. Assist local government officials in planning, organizing, and evaluating their local environmental
services and programs, and help solve operational problems or review new environmental impacts
or activity, either in the existing work plan or as requested by elected officials or other authorities;

2. Help coordinate local government environmental programs with other environmental programs, services, companies, or organizations within the community;

3. Provide opportunities for citizens affected by environmental services or regulations to take a role in forming local environmental services or programs; establish two-way communication, furnishing citizens an opportunity to serve as “community eyes and ears,” and facilitate direct interaction of environmental staff with citizens in a nonenforcement context;

4. Serve as a stabilizing body for the local officials who administer environmental programs in the community;

5. Help secure resources for environmental health and safety purposes that might not otherwise be appropriated;

6. Act as a sounding board for major changes to local environmental policy under possible review or consideration by elected officials and to ensure continuity in environmental programs during periods of transition in political leadership or environmental support staff;

7. Provide leadership for enhancing or extending existing environmental programs to better serve the health interests of citizens. (In environmental quality and protection, there is typically a need to balance economic development and environmental resource protection, and to recognize that there is a symbiotic relationship between these two impor-tant goals.);

8. Provide a forum for officials responsible for environmental programs to promote their services;

9. Encourage, thorough discussion and review, using guest speakers or specialists, and otherwise seek to inform staff members of ways to ensure environmental program success; and

10. Take advantage of group thinking processes and teamwork in reaching advisory decisions about problems, proposals and situations confronting the community.

Adapted from Alan Kahler, et al. Methods in Adult Education. Danville: Interstate, 1985.

Responsiveness to Environmental Concern
Most local officials are “back-door” environmentalists, making important environmental decisions on a somewhat piece-meal basis, failing to take a comprehensive look at the role local government has in environmental protection. Instead of merely reacting to environmental crises or problems, local governments should consider getting out front on environmental issues. Involving citizens in environmental decisions is the key to securing acceptance of viable solutions and their costs. If local officials see protecting the safety and health of citizens as a priority, then developing a comprehensive approach to the complex environmental challenges facing their communities is a major step toward fulfilling that responsibility.

Observing communities with citizen environmental quality advisory boards (sometimes known by other names like natural resources committee or local oversight committee) reveals that they represent a useful tool. Local governments from coast to coast, both small and large, have adopted environmental advisory boards. Analysis of the ordinances adopted by several of these communities reveals some interesting patterns.
It is not uncommon for these boards or the communities they represent to be initiated in reaction to a single local environmental problem. Examples include oil spills, long-term and ongoing industrial pollution, abandoned hazardous wastes, solid waste disposal crises, resource recovery, groundwater pollution, and air quality. Some boards are launched primarily to encourage conservation, environmental planning, and interaction among citizens and industries with local government in a proactive, mutually respecting fashion.
One assistant city manager explained that having an environmental quality advisory committee is a way to institutionalize participation on environmental issues.

A councilwoman describes her community’s committee as particularly helpful with complex or difficult environmental issues. “It works well,” says a public works staff liaison, discussing his community’s natural resources commission. One spokesperson for a local community development agency expressed enthusiastic praise for the local environmental review committee’s contribution. In addition to serving as cushions or buffers for elected officials—as well as valuable forums for sharing technical information and maintaining good public relations—environmental advisory committees can be both sympathetic and objective about the array of issues the public may introduce.

One small town manager says citizen committees help to run the community, and the conservation commission is among them. The Citizens Environmental Protection Advisory Committee in another community receives professional staff support from the local department of water and power, operating under an ordinance that empowers it to take actions to improve environmental quality.

Although many environmental quality boards simply function to educate citizens and offer advice to the local governments, a few have coordinated more intensive and detailed efforts using funds from both private and government sources.

The city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, established an advisory committee by ordinance in the early 1970s. The committee continues to operate today. Although this city has been a “company town,” where a few major industrial employers may have greater-than-average influence on local policy, its advisory board has made an environmental contribution not otherwise possible. In the Oak Ridge example, the committee continues to comment on public works issues, general city environmental issues, and federal agency National Environmental Policy Act documents, as well as work with Superfund clean-up reviews, comment letters, and other high-profile roles. The committee interfaces with the city council as needed.

Environmental advisory committees may expect to have relatively little influence in a locality with one or only a few dominant employers, but the community is still likely to be better off than it would be in the absence of an environmental agenda and an agency to pursue it.

There are other Tennessee local government examples. Newport adopted a resolution to establish a local environmental agenda. The Knoxville Metropolitan Planning Commission sponsored the adoption of an expanded local environmental agenda. Germantown adopted a citizen environmental/ public works advisory board and made it part of the city program. Memphis established an Earth Complex, and its mayor selected a citizen advisory committee to work with the city regarding policy directions and facility use.

Communities that employ environmental quality advisory committees for curative/reactive purposes must interpret these bodies as a mechanism for proactive and preventative environmental impact planning. The contributions of these bodies can be substantial, depending upon the degree of teamwork and trust among committee members, local government staff, elected officials, and residents concerned with ensuring a high quality environment for present and future generations. John Bartlit’s questions in a 1990 Environmental News Digest article are still valid today: How safe is “safe enough”? How clean is “clean enough”? The answer is as safe and as clean as society will support. Environmental advisory boards can help communities achieve this goal.

For information about the Environmental Quality Advisory Board for the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, visit the city’s Web site at

A version of this article originally appeared in the National Civic Review, published by the National Civic League. It has been adapted and reprinted here with permission.

About the Author
James Harless, B.S., M.S., has more than 35 years of experience in public and environmental health, and technical assistance. He is currently the manager of environmental monitoring with the Tennessee Depart-ment of Environment and Conservation.