Ask a local government official or public works director if he or she would welcome another committee or board, and you will likely elicit a skeptical look. Citizens and public officials alike are leery of using committees to solve difficult problems. But citizen committee input to elected leaders and local government staff is both undervalued and underused for a broad range of programs and services.
A citizen committee—or environmental advisory board, as they are frequently known—works with the local government on environmental concerns. I advocate more public involvement in local government— and state and federal government as well— in spite of the current prevalence of citizen apathy. Although there are many demands on the time of local officials and residents in every community, an environmental advisory committee or board requires an investment of comparatively modest time, given the importance of a community's environmental health.
The advisory board can be established by ordinance and operate informally under bylaws and an annual work plan. As a committee, one of the goals can be to improve environmental conditions in ways that are both reactive and proactive.
Local Use of Advisory Units
Most people recognize that the list of issues local governments face, on which they must take direct action, is long—and growing longer. Even as local authorities struggle with budgets, taxes, staffing, equipment levels, and user fees, they increasingly must confront the complex issue of community environmental quality. Nonetheless, most local governments could maximize their resources and economic viability, as well as public health and safety, by adopting an environmental agenda.
The issues on this agenda may include water and wastewater treatment, solid waste collection or disposal, the remedial status of Superfund sites, the impact of proposed industrial development, and comprehensive resource evaluation or regulatory oversight. A local agenda might be formulated in reaction to an existing problem, to prevent future problems, or both. The advisory committee's agenda can be limited to one or two topics of immediate concern or priority, or address dozens of topics during each meeting.
Until recently, local governments have benefited from state and federal governments in the area of environmental protection; only now are environmental quality and protection being recognized as local responsibilities. However, local governments continue to be cautious about the topic of sponsoring an active environmental agenda.
There is evidence of an increasing need for additional local involvement to maximize information exchange and community self-direction, and to evaluate the complex environmental issues many communities face. After all, who knows a local community better than those who live and work there? For that matter, who has a greater investment? An optional board or committee is one tool that can help communities make the effort more formal, if they so desire, following an annual work plan that the local government creating the advisory board chooses.
In addition to health and safety considerations, long-term economic development cannot occur without simultaneous human and environmental resource protection. Contrary to assertions of diehard economic boosters, economic development and environmental quality are not adversaries, but instead have a symbiotic relationship. If communities are to attract new people and industries for future growth, adoption of an active program to protect local resources is just common sense.
Every community has an interest in maximizing human and natural resources, protecting public health and safety, and promoting appropriate and sustainable economic development. Protecting each citizen, as well as the air, land, and water, is something upon which we can all agree. Most people support a clean environment and implementing the local, state, and federal programs necessary to achieve it. In this regard, an environmental quality advisory board (EQAB) can be instrumental to local government, not only in ensuring environmental quality, but also in preserving the community's economic development potential.