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President's Column: President’s Award spotlights successful campaigns

MEC members get great work done and share lessons learned
It is so easy to get overwhelmed by the negativity in our political decision-making process that we forget to see how much good is actually getting done in our communities.

Sometimes you need to take a step back and survey what is really going on. This fall at our MEC Annual Meeting we did just that. Three member groups that are making a positive difference were recognized with this year’s President’s Awards for environmental leadership and excellence.

The three recipients are the Ecology Center, Michigan Recycling Coalition, and West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

Ecology Center

With a campaign slogan of “More buses, more places, more often,” the Ecology Center helped lead a diverse campaign to pass a millage increase supporting the expansion of service by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority.

The campaign tallied over 70 percent of the vote this spring, winning 55 of 57 precincts in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. The new 0.7 mill transit tax—which will cost the owner of a $200,000 home an additional $70 a year for five years—was approved by wide margins in all three communities. The voters sent a strong message of support for transit service, thanks to the Ecology Center’s leadership.

In a time when most politicians run for the hills over a new tax, the voters of these three communities said loud and clear that improved transit service is well worth the cost. Extended service, greater frequency and additional routes won the day.

The campaign used voter data available in the Voter Activation Network to identify the voters most likely to support the millage and went after them with phone calls, mail and face-to-face canvassing. This positively themed campaign steamrolled the opposition.

The lessons learned were:
  • There are non-traditional voters who can and will come out to vote.
  • It was an easier campaign because “people felt really happy about going out and voting for it,” said Alexis Blizman, Ecology Center’s legislative and policy director.
  • It helped to create a feeling of community.
  • Staff, strategy, message and voter engagement were key to this victory.
MEC honored the Ecology Center with a 2014 President’s Award for winning a more-than-decisive victory, improving transportation options and building a better sense of community in Washtenaw County.

Michigan Recycling Coalition

After decades of inactivity at the state level, recycling jumped to the forefront of environmental issues in 2014. Michigan Recycling Coalition (MRC) was there paving the way for Gov. Snyder to embrace the goal of increasing Michigan’s residential recycling rate from an abysmal 14 percent to 30 percent in two years.

MRC has been calling for increased investment in recycling for years. In 2011, they produced a pivotal study, 2011 State of Recycling in Michigan: A Way Forward, which called for a waste utilization and recycling goal of 50 percent. The State of Michigan, in 2007, had already officially adopted that goal of 50 percent by 2015. It is estimated that if that rate were achieved, the economic value of the materials not disposed of would be $435 million per year.

Gov. Snyder called on the Department of Environmental Quality to develop a statewide comprehensive recycling plan, which culminated with DEQ’s Proposed Plan of Action on Recycling, revealed in February 2014. MRC’s framing and promotion of recycling as an environmental and economic issue was paramount to this becoming a key environmental goal for the governor and the push to add $1 million for recycling in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget. The governor recognized MRC’s leadership by appointing Executive Director Kerrin O’Brien to the new Governor’s Recycling Council.

O’Brien shared her top ten lessons learned from this experience:
  1. Bring something new to the table. Clarify problems and issues; identify new options and new opportunities.
  2. Be the expert. Know your stuff. Don’t be afraid to share information and ideas.
  3. Show up. There is such a thing as workgroup fatigue, but don’t succumb to it. These are important conversations that can be built upon.
  4. Get to know where the other experts are or aren’t. If your issue isn’t on the state’s radar, you’ll have to work harder to bring them to the table and up to speed.
  5. Talk to anyone who’ll listen. Then talk some more. Find and talk to friends in high places.
  6. Politics make for strange bedfellows. You might wake up in bed with stakeholder partners that have similar interests for different reasons, working toward a different end. That’s politics, make friends, be cautious.
  7. Get to know the territory. Keep in mind that you’re ultimately managing a process and a variety of relationships to accomplish specific policy goals.
  8. Kiss the Blarney Stone. Success requires some amount of luck!
  9. You’ll know you’ve gotten something right when friends come out of the woodwork. Being a leader sometimes requires going it alone, making progress and building momentum, and then finally others will see what you’ve accomplished and will be willing to help do what else needs to be done.
  10. Put on your big kid clothes. It can be lonely; make it easier on yourself. Part of being the expert is looking like one.
While there is still much work to do, MRC is making great headway in an area of policy that hasn’t seen enough attention in decades. A commitment by the state to double the rate of residential recycling, an appointment to the Governor’s Recycling Council and the increase of $1 million for recycling into the budget is why MRC received a President’s Award this year.

West Michigan Environmental Action Council

In 2012, Mayor George Heartwell was honored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors for Grand Rapids’ efforts to address climate change. Along with that honor came a grant that would help fund work by West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) on the city’s first-ever Climate Resiliency Report, which was published in December 2013.

According to its executive summary, “The report defines climate resiliency as the ability of a community to simultaneously balance ecological, economic and social systems to maintain or increase quality of life in an uncertain, dynamic climate future.”

The outcome of the report was the identification of local impacts of climate change across community sectors and specific recommendations to address these impacts. Additionally, the report generated a community-wide conversation around climate change, its impact on Grand Rapids and what actions can be implemented to help mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The report provided “specific, short- and near-term projects, policies, programs and plans to mitigate the effects of climate change.” It outlined 38 recommendations, including process steps such as identifying champions for a more climate-resilient community; environmental actions like restoring the Grand River and its tributaries; social steps like developing local food infrastructure; and economic recommendations such as integrating anticipated climate impacts into municipal insurance, capital projects and asset management.

At least one of those recommendations—a vital streets program—is already being implemented. According to the City of Grand Rapids, “Vital Streets embrace the entire right-of-way through design that provides safe access for all users, manages stormwater in place through low impact development practices, enhances urban tree canopy and quality of life in neighborhoods and economic vitality in business districts.”

The funding for the vital streets program comes from an income tax increase approved by the voters in May 2014.

MEC honored WMEAC with the 2014 President’s Award for their development of the Climate Resiliency Report and continued work to implement their findings to make Grand Rapids a climate-resilient community.

These three member organizations demonstrate the strength and power of what can be achieved in Michigan to address environmental issues and provide solutions that build a cleaner, healthier and climate-resilient Michigan.

We salute the 2014 President’s Award recipients!
-Chris Kolb, MEC
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