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Climate change language still unsettled despite NOACA board vote

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.

The board of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency appeared to settle a contentious dispute on March 10 when it voted 27-10 to include climate action language in the agency's guiding document.

But a NOACA staff lawyer threw that into question by claiming proper procedure wasn't followed and calling for another meeting to revisit the language in the document, known as thethe 2024 Overall Work Program (OWP).

That sparked protest from two of the climate language's most ardent supporters, Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne and Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb.

"We believe that the NOACA board has spoken," Bibb and Ronayne wrote in a letter to NOACA Executive Director and CEO Grace Gallucci and Board President John Hamercheck, a Lake County commissioner. "We are frustrated that this issue is now being raised again."

Ronayne told Ideastream public media that he's beginning to wonder what NOACA's motives are.

“It seems to me to be shenanigans, and I said that at the board meeting and I stand by that. I’ve served on this board before, this is my second tour of duty," he said. "This is a metropolitan planning organization that is supposed to be a leader of environmental planning, and it’s difficult to contemplate environmental planning without carrying the word climate.”

NOACA attorney Nancy Griffith sent out a memorandum on March 17 saying the actions taken at the March 10 board meeting run "counter to best practices for a governing board," and she requested a special meeting of NOACA's Executive Committee to discuss all draft versions of the proposed Overall Work Program. That meeting has been set for April 7.

Gallucci said nothing nefarious is happening. NOACA is not looking to overturn the board's vote.

“No, it is absolutely not the intent to reverse the board decision, and in fact the Executive Committee cannot do that. So, it really would not be procedurally possible," she said. "What the intent is is to take the document that was approved and clean up that document, or modify that document.”

The climate language issue has been divisive for months as vocal opponents showed up at NOACA climate action planning meetings in January, saying it was part of a "woke agenda." NOACA serves Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain and Medina counties, and the politics are very different county to county.

Opponents also spoke out during the March 10 meeting, where commissioners outside of Cuyahoga County wanted to scrap climate action language.

Gallucci said the OWP will continue to involve feedback from disparate parties.

“We take [public] input seriously, we weigh it against many other things, and of course, as you can imagine we will get, often times, input that is conflicting,” Gallucci said. “We will look to balance everything, and then at the end of the process we hope to have consensus in a planning document or in a plan itself that is reflective of a community that we live in and that we’re planning for.”

Ronayne and Bibb said what the board was presented with on March 10 was nothing like what had been voted on in two committee meetings, where the draft contained climate language. The language was deleted and the board was not notified, they said.

"It is not clear through either Board practice, rules, or law how staff was dramatically permitted to change language approved and voted out of both the Finance Committee and the Executive Committee and present a different document to the board for a vote," they wrote.

Ronayne, Bibb and other supporters had it reinstated during the March meeting and voted on it.

Ronayne and Bibb said time is being wasted. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report finds emissions need to be reduced immediately in order to effectively address climate change.

“The Executive Committee revisiting this item for another round of discussions is exactly the type of time wasting that our region can no longer afford,” the letter states. “And we are dismayed that the carefully planned work done to date by NOACA staff and the engagement of contributors over the course or the last year appears to be of no value in the face of concerns raised by those who have thus far chosen not to be legitimately involved in this effort.”

Gallucci told a NOACA advisory council Friday morning that the agency is committed to a climate action plan.

"NOACA is not not doing a climate action plan. There was never NOACA thinking about not doing a climate action plan," Gallucci said. "NOACA is moving forward with the development of a climate action plan, but it is doing so in a respectful way to all of the five counties and to make sure that all folks have the opportunity to be engaged."

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