Northampton’s at-large council candidates tackle climate change in forum

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Marissa Elkins SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Jamila Gore SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Michelle Serra SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Students from across Hampshire County gathered for a climate change protest on the steps of Northampton City Hall, Friday, May 3, 2019. The protest was a part of Fridays For Future, a series of worldwide, student-led demonstrations to urge action on environmental issues. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/22/2021 12:24:29 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The five candidates for City Council at-large outlined their ideas for battling climate change at the municipal level in a virtual forum Tuesday night, with some urging action through the zoning ordinance and others calling for increased representation of marginalized communities in city government.

On Sept. 28, voters will narrow the field of candidates from five to four, and voters in the Nov. 2 general election will pick two. In ballot order, the candidates are Michael Quinlan, David Murphy, Marissa Elkins, Jamila Gore, and Michelle Serra.

Climate Action Now sponsored the forum and said about 130 people attended virtually. Moderator Ben Weil, a sustainable building professor at UMass Amherst and a Northampton Energy and Sustainability Commission member, will also moderate the Climate Action Now virtual mayoral forum on Thursday night at 7 p.m.

Michael Quinlan

An April resolution by the City Council declared climate change a human-caused emergency. Quinlan, the incumbent Ward 1 city councilor, said he is not an expert on climate science, but “I’m very proud of how I’ve engaged with people who have more knowledge and expertise than I do.”

He said he is concerned about the impact of the new plastic waste reduction ordinance. Many restaurants in the city are likely to switch to non-recyclable commercial and industrial compostables, Quinlan said, which people will then have to separate from their garbage and recyclables.

“We need to address this (and) take on the arduous task” of engaging with people to encourage the separation of the compostables, Quinlan said, because “they can contaminate the recycling stream.” He added that a municipal commercial composting facility might be a good solution.

He said the city should help to ensure that people are not “priced out” of access to solar energy, and that “bold action” is needed during the Main Street redesign to address ongoing natural gas leaks.

Quinlan is a member of the City Services subcommittee, and he said department heads should face questions at regular public hearings about their progress toward climate goals.

“We should be using this mechanism, specifically, to have regular check-ins,” Quinlan said. “Are we meeting these objectives, and if not, what action plans need to be put in place to make sure that happens?”

David Murphy

Murphy, chairman of the city’s Board of Assessors and a former seven-term Ward 5 city councilor, said the council “does three things: orders, ordinances and resolutions,” and that the zoning ordinance is the best way for the council to fight climate change.

“We don’t have room in the budget, or at least the budget I know, to do really substantial things,” Murphy said. Making new zoning requirements “spends other people’s money” on construction that meets the city’s energy efficiency goals.

He said that, if the city wants to become carbon neutral by 2050, state and federal grants are needed. But, he cautioned, “we are setting ourselves up for failure” if the carbon goals are too idealistic, and the city needs to be prepared to adapt to higher average temperatures.

“Meaningful steps aren’t going to come from someone on the council cooking up some sort of legislation,” Murphy said.

In 2010, Murphy was integral to passing the city’s stretch code, which increases the energy efficiency code requirements for new construction and for major residential renovations or additions.

Murphy acknowledged that the code made housing more expensive as an “unintended consequence,” and that city leaders “can’t lose track” of the impact of their decisions.

Marissa Elkins

Elkins, a defense attorney and vice-chair of the city’s Planning Board, said that all city government buildings and operations should be net-carbon neutral before 2030, and the entire city should be net-carbon neutral before 2050. Those target dates are laid out in the Sustainable Northampton Plan.

“Failure will be at our doorstep in the form of terrible circumstances and a dismal future for our children,” Elkins said.

Elkins agreed with Murphy’s view that the zoning ordinance is the City Council’s most impactful tool for battling climate change. She said that every action should be carefully considered for its possible effect on the housing market.

“We need to always think about the impact of whatever is before us” as it relates to the climate, “or whatever maintaining the status quo might mean,” she said.

A lack of diversity across the city government contributes to the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized communities, she said, and “we need to show people that their voice matters and they have a say in what happens.”

Elkins is also in favor of an east-west rail system to connect western Massachusetts and Boston, which she said would have climate benefits and provide economic opportunities for workers in Northampton.

Jamila Gore

A progressive activist and renter who has lived in 5 of the city’s 7 wards, Gore said the city should transfer money from the “overfunded” Police Department to pay for climate mitigation efforts.

“Emergencies require funding. We need to lobby at the state and federal level for grants (and) we can take money from other departments in the city to fund sustainability officers,” Gore said. “I think that’s the best step to take. … It’s tied in to racial and economic injustice.”

As a renter, Gore said she has “experienced the economic brunt” of poor energy efficiency in housing and said the city should consider helping landlords fund building improvements.

If elected, Gore would be the second Black person ever to serve on the City Council. John Thorpe, elected in 2019, was the first Black member. He is not seeking reelection to his Ward 4 seat.

“We know that representation matters,” Gore said, adding that people of color and low-income earners are “left out of the conversation about climate, even though they are disproportionately affected by it.”

She suggested paying people to serve on city commissions as a way to draw more interest.

Gore supports the city’s chosen Main Street redesign plan, known as Alternative 3, but said it could be more climate- and pedestrian-friendly while making more room for bicycles and wheelchairs.

Michelle Serra

Serra is a progressive political organizer who served as Hampshire County coordinator for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. She said she respected the Vermont Democrat’s “honesty and courage” when he said that climate change is the biggest threat to U.S. national security.

“We should leave no stone unturned” to bring in state and federal grants, Serra said.

She is a supporter of the progressive Green New Deal climate proposal, a package of energy efficiency and job creation goals championed by some congressional Democrats.

Serra served on the board of Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity and co-chaired the organization’s Green Team. Since 2018, all Habitat homes in the Valley have included donated or reduced-cost solar panels and have been classified as Zero Net-Energy Ready Homes by the U.S. Department of Energy.

A central theme of Serra’s campaign has been public outreach “to grow a broader consensus for action,” she said. “We are going to need everyone on board,” from members of the Northampton Youth Commission to seniors who are not currently part of the climate movement but are worried for their grandchildren.

“We can’t be effective in an echo chamber, and that’s been an issue for Northampton,” Serra said. “We need to make progress. We need to involve working people who might be juggling several jobs to make ends meet; they’re raising kids.”

She suggested adjusting public meeting times to make it easier for more people to attend and ensuring that the homeless population is included in the governmental decision-making process.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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