Tampa’s climate change plans hinge on hire

Mayor Jane Castor has launched a search for a resiliency officer to coordinate the city’s efforts to combat climate change.
Jane Castor
Jane Castor [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 18, 2019

TAMPA — During her run for mayor earlier this year, Jane Castor promised to lead an effort to make this city less vulnerable to climate change.

She vowed to hire a full-time sustainability and resiliency officer to coordinate Tampa’s efforts to tackle rising sea levels, increased flooding and the more intense hurricanes that scientists predict will batter the city in decades to come.

And she promised to sign a Sierra Club-sponsored pledge to completely convert to renewable energy by 2050, as her counterparts in St. Petersburg, Orlando, Sarasota and 135 other cities have done.

In office for 5 1/2 months, Castor hasn’t done either yet. The first months of her administration were consumed with preparing a budget and getting it approved by City Council as well as her successful championing of an ambitious plan to repair the city’s aging infrastructure over the next 20 years.

In recent weeks, though, Castor has ramped up efforts to prioritize climate change. She’s asked private donors to help the city pay the Rockefeller Group to conduct a three-to-four month assessment of the city’s best route to sustainability. And she’s contracted with a national search firm to cull candidates for resiliency officer.

Local climate crisis advocates, who had criticized former mayor Bob Buckhorn for not making the issue enough of a priority, say they’re willing to be patient with the new mayor.

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Castor’s decision to place on the back-burner a controversial plan to convert wastewater into drinking water that involved injecting it into the aquifer earned her plenty of goodwill, said Kent Bailey, local Sierra Club chapter chairman.

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He said she has earned a little more time on other parts of her resiliency plan.

“She has pledged to move forward on that,” Bailey said. “We’re looking forward to moving forward.”

The search for the sustainability officer launched last Thursday. That same day, the Castor administration announced that chief of staff John Bennett would visit the Netherlands next month to meet with federal, regional and local officials to learn more about that country’s adaptation to rising seas.

In a recent interview, Castor argued that the city has done more than it’s given credit for, pointing to recent big-ticket items like $250 million in stormwater improvements and $3.1 billion program to fix the city’s water and wastewater systems.

But getting a sustainability officer in place remains the key to future progress, Castor said. St. Petersburg and Clearwater already have hired full-time officers.

“Clearly, I’d like to be a lot further down the line. If I had a magic wand, I’d like to have the sustainability officer in place," she said late last month.

A lot hinges on that hire. Developing a sustainability action plan will take time. St. Petersburg spent several years crafting its plan. And other initiatives are hanging in the balance, such as the clean energy pledge.

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Phil Compton, the Sierra Club’s senior organizing representative for the group’s state office, said Tampa is following an increasingly common path.

“We’re finding more and more that cities are choosing to do some planning before they make that commitment, and that’s fine,” Compton said.

Within six months or so, the Sierra Club would like to see Castor sign the pledge.

For now?

“We’re happy so far with the progress she’s made,” he said.

Castor has sent the right signals to the environmental community that she’s serious about taking some of the big steps she outlined on the campaign trail, said Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

“They’ve shared with us that they see sustainability and resiliency integrated into everything the city does,” Glickman said.

But, at some point, words needs to be translated into action, said council member Charlie Miranda.

After an update on the city’s efforts earlier this month, Miranda said he wants to see more meat on the bone, like electric cars making up a greater percentage of the city’s vehicle fleet

“The only way you lead is by example, not by talking about it,” Miranda said during an Oct. 3 council meeting. It’s not what you talk about, it’s what you do."

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.