Historic moment: Northampton creates climate action department


Staff Writer

Published: 02-21-2023 11:32 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The city has taken a major step toward its ambitious goal of making city operations carbon neutral in seven years with the creation of a new climate action department that will include a soon-to-be hired climate chief to lead the effort.

The new department, officially the Climate Action and Project Administration Department (CAPA), was unanimously approved by the City Council last week. The department will combine strategic planning for the city’s sustainability and climate change goals, oversee and manage projects and add a sustainability focus to resource procurement. In other words, it will help ensure those projects meet climate and sustainability goals put forth by the city.

“I think tonight’s council meeting will probably be one of the most consequential in Northampton’s history,” At-Large Councilor Marissa Elkins said at Thursday’s meeting. “I want to commend the mayor for taking this step.”

In addition to achieving a goal of carbon neutrality for all city operations by the year 2030, the city intends to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The department was created in coordination with the Northampton Climate Emergency Coalition, a group formed last year consisting of representatives from various climate activist organizations in the area such as Climate Action Now, Extinction Rebellion and the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence.

“Once we formed our coalition, we decided we wanted to focus on something that we could accomplish and that would have an overarching impact on the city,” said Joyce Rosenfeld, a member of the coalition representing Extinction Rebellion. “We came up with the idea of a climate crisis director that would work with all departments and would report to the mayor.”

The creation of the department mirrors actions taken at the statewide level by Gov. Maura Healey, who issued an executive order to create the Office of Climate Innovation and Resilience, appointing Melissa Hoffer as the state’s first climate chief.

“I agree that a department-level position that reports directly to the city’s chief executive officer has the highest potential to succeed in bringing about the changes necessary to meet the city’s environmental goals,” Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra said in a Feb. 2 memo to city councilors. “I am confident that adding project management practices informed by environmental goals to every city project will improve municipal efficiency and climate outcomes.”

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The city is now seeking a director to lead the department.

“It’s really important that this person holds a vision of what’s possible and really brings the community together and implements that vision,” said Susan Theberge, a member of the coalition representing Climate Action Now. “We are in a climate emergency and our time is running out. So we need to do as much as we can, as quickly as we can.”

The move to create the department comes just weeks after the council approved a Climate Change Mitigation Stabilization Fund, which currently has $3 million in reserves. The purpose of this fund is to plan for cost implementation of the city’s climate resilience and regeneration plans, including design and strategic planning, Sciarra previously told the council.

“Projects to decarbonize our buildings, especially the schools, to get to net zero are extremely expensive, so we want to make sure we’re earmarking funds for these goals,” she said in January.

The new CAPA Department will be staffed by three people — the new director, an energy and sustainability officer position from the Central Services Department and the chief procurement officer from the Auditor’s Office.

Joe Cook, the city’s longtime chief procurement officer, retired from the position on Monday after 35 years. Cook will be replaced by William Coffey.

“I’m proud that during my tenure, with the support of all five of the mayors I worked for, Northampton has never been found to violate any statute or regulation related to procurement,” Cook said in a statement announcing his retirement, “There are probably municipalities equal in quality to Northampton’s procurement practices, but I’m confident that there are none better.”