Politics & Government

Charlotte’s mayor dissolved the environment committee. Activists want it back.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles merged threes City Council committees, including the environmental committee, into one.
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles merged threes City Council committees, including the environmental committee, into one. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte has touted its new environmental plan in recent months, designed to fight climate change and establish the city as a leader in a building wave of green-friendly urban policies.

So why did Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles eliminate the City Council’s Environment Committee and merge it with two others?

That was the question that environmentalists at Monday’s council meeting asked. Speaking at the public forum before the meeting, they criticized Lyle’s decision.

“The environment will now get one third of the attention it used to, and one one-thousandth of the attention it should,” said Mary Ellis Stevens, a 14-year-old who said she’s concerned about the future of the planet. “The environment deserves its own committee.”

Ely Portillo

Last month, Lyles merged three communities — Community Safety, Environment and Housing & Neighborhood Development — into a single new group called the Neighborhood Development Committee. Lyles said the change was made to break City Council members out of their silos and get them working more collaboratively and “streamline our approach to increase our effectiveness.”

“It’s all about action, not alignment,” she said. “Some have questioned this new structure, but what’s most important is what we do, not the specific names and compositions of the committees.”

“If we don’t try it, we’re going to end up in the same silos we’ve had,” she said.

But advocates who spoke Monday said the City Council needs a single committee focused on environmental issues. Charlotte is dealing with the effects of rapid development, from threats to the city’s tree canopy to runoff and erosion from construction sites to air quality as more cars hit the roads.

Council member Dimple Ajmera was formerly chair of the Environment Committee. During her tenure, City Council approved a new strategic plan that set goals for drastically reducing carbon emissions from both city-owned buildings and vehicles and private sources. Charlotte was recognized as one of 20 cities in the forefront of climate change efforts by the Bloomberg Foundation in December, when the city’s plan was approved.

“Restore the committee,” said Don Keen, of the North Carolina Climate Solutions Coalition. “Why would we change horses at the beginning of implementation of such a vital action plan?”

Ajmera said she will continue to focus on the environment.

“We had a historic year,” said Ajmera, in a statement. “My work will not end here! The impact of climate change is truly something that keeps me awake at night and I recognize how many of our residents share the same passion.”

Martin Zimmerman urged the mayor to reconsider.

“Take a deep breath and a step back,” he said. “To nip the momentum of the climate action energy we have going ... doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Council member Justin Harlow, chair of the combined committee, said he will maintain the new committee’s focus on the environment.

“We’ll never consider a policy, while I’m chair, without considering its impact on the environment,” he said. “This is a way to un-silo this...Those things just don’t go away because a committee changes its name.”