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NOACA board debates need of climate-specific language in annual Overall Work Program

NOACA protesters holding signs at the agency's board meeting on January 20, 2023.
Zaria Johnson
Ideastream Public Media
NOACA protesters holding signs at the agency's board meeting on Friday, January 20, 2023.

Concerns arose over the need for climate-specific language at the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency’s Board of Directors meeting Friday.

The conversation arose when discussing a draft of NOACA’s annual Overall Work Program, which outlines the agency’s long-range plan, initiatives and budget for both environmental and transportation improvement efforts.

Previous drafts of the document highlighted the agency’s Climate Action Plan which aims to reduce emission levels and improve climate resilience and equity in the region. But some board members were frustrated to see mention of the plan removed from the latest draft.

“It's obvious that the words climate have been stricken from the document,” Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne said. “Today is a matter … [of] do we or do we not want to do climate action planning with the words specific climate in front of us?”

A previous draft of the document was nearly unanimously approved by the Finance and Audit Committee last month, but only after a rigorous, 45-minute discussion, Elyria Mayor and committee Chair Frank Whitfield said.

“We had some new board members who were triggered by language,” Whitfield said. “But I think it’s our role as NOACA to keep the common-sense approach that we have and … not be hijacked and not be afraid to use language that we believe in and just explain the work that we do.”

NOACA executive Director Grace Gallucci maintained that language in the drafts were similar, even if “climate” wasn’t stated outright, and that the phrase was removed from the latest draft since the agency has yet to finalize the plan itself.

“We put it there this year thinking we’d be further along in implementation,” she said. “The version that was in there for the Finance and Audit Committee speaks to the implementation of a plan that does not exist yet.”

During the board meeting, Whitfield motioned to revert the language in the draft Overall Work Program to that of the February draft, which sparked a line of push back and questioning.

Lorain and Medina County representatives expressed concerns over adopting the language in previous drafts of the Overall Work Program, without having the time to properly consider it. Other members said the change didn't fairly represent the opinion's of NOACA's five-county region.

Board members and several public attendees felt the agency removed the language due to push back from groups who denied the affects of climate change and the need for NOACA’s Climate Action Plan at previous meetings.

During public comment, former director of Green City Blue Lake Institute David Beach expressed concerns that NOACA might be focusing too much on the opinions of detractors.

“I'm concerned that a small, unrepresentative group of climate change deniers has been bullying NOACA leadership into watering down language about the agency's climate action program and I really want to urge you not to let this happen,” Beach said. “Climate change should not be politicized. It should not even be controversial.”

He went onto highlight research that found 72% of adult Ohioans think global warming is affecting the planet and 61% want local officials to address climate change.

“So, please don't be manipulated by a few loudmouths who want to stop progress,” Beach said. “NOACA needs to lead on climate change openly, proudly, and it's probably the most important thing that you can do.”

A Medina resident who attended NOACA’s January Climate Action Plan town hall said she came to ask questions she couldn’t ask agency representatives then, and questioned the need for some of NOACA’s proposed projects.

“Why are we spending resources on electric cars when our electric grid is overtaxed right now?” she said. “In the summer, when the heat wave comes, electric companies claim they might have to restrict usage because of the demand.”

Northeast Ohio residents participating in the hybrid Climate Action Plan listening session
Zaria Johnson
Ideastream Public Media
Northeast Ohio residents participating in the hybrid Climate Action Plan listening sessions held by the North East Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency in Cuyahoga County on Tuesday, January 10, 2022.

University Heights Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan emphasized that board members should rely on clear language to communicate NOACA’s work to the public.

“As leaders, we need to be speaking in plain terms that are commonly understood,” Brennan said. “And if there is a difference of opinion, one that is informed, one that is uninformed, and we should be deferring to the side of informed opinion.”

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb said he preferred climate-specific language to help ensure Cleveland has access to federal dollars.

“There's billions of dollars billion dollars of federal money on the table. If we’re not clear, specific and direct, in my opinion … that puts Cuyahoga County and the City of Cleveland at risk of getting access to that money,” Bibb said. “So, we must be clear and direct, and be a leader in the region on this very critical, important issue.”

After several rounds of voting, the board ultimately voted 27 to 10 to restore the language in the Overall Work Program to that of the February draft.

NOACA’s Finance and Audit Committee will hold a special meeting to further discuss the language and public comment from Friday's session before the Overall Work Program is reintroduced to the Board in June.

“We went back to original wording that was in the February meetings and the wordings to come back to restoring climate language to NOACA'S as workplan,” Ronayne said. “Not everybody may be voting for that, not everybody did today, but it doesn't mean that on the next vote, we don't vote together on something we communicate.”

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.