Forum on Global Warming Short on Solutions

A City of Grand Rapids sponsored forum on global warming last night at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) was short on solutions and offered little new information for attendees on how they could address global warming.

A forum on global warming hosted by the City of Grand Rapids was held at Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) Grand Rapids campus last night. Mayor George Heartwell and the Director of the Michigan Department of the Environmental Quality (DEQ) Steven Chester, both provided opening comments before presentations by three panelists. Mayor Heartwell boasted that Grand Rapids has made a larger reduction of carbon per capita than any other city in the country between 2000 and 2005, according to a new study by the Brookings Institute.

DEQ Director Steven Chester stated that Michigan has taken some “aggressive steps towards confronting its role in the creation of Greenhouse gases.” The evidence for these aggressive steps were that Governor Granholm signed the Greenhouse gas accord with other Midwest governors and that the state now has a Climate Action Council which was created in November of 2007. It is worth noting that while some environmental organizations are represented on this action council, most of the members are from universities, government, businesses, and business associations. However, he also stated that Michigan is the ninth largest emitter of CO2 in the country.

The first panelist was Dr. Knute Nadelhoffer from the University of Michigan. He presented some background information on what he called “undisputable evidence that humans are causing Global Warming.” Dr. Dadelhoffer has traveled to both of the poles and says that the changes have been dramatic. Biomass is decomposing near the Arctic and releasing large amounts of CO2, Arctic ice is melting, and the amounts of snow and ice at the poles has been steadily decreasing over the past 30 years. He said the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming regions on earth and has increased by 5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950. The most dramatic example the speaker provided was the disintegration of the Larsen B Ice Shelf near the Antarctic Circle. All of this information, according Dr. Nadelhoffer, was based on his own research and that of the conservative estimates that are from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.

Karel Rogers, a retired GVSU professor and current board President of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, followed Dr. Nadelhoffer. Dr. Rogers emphasized the negative impact on climate change that population growth has had over the past 100 years. This population growth has meant huge increases in population, mining, oil production, electricity consumption and the use of motorized vehicles, according to Dr. Rogers. She concluded her comments by offering what she referred to as policy recommendations. First, she said Michigan needs to integrate water use with energy planning, since 40% of fresh was use is for energy production. Second, she said that there needs to be serious energy conservation, which the professor said could be done with the construction of more LEED certified buildings. Lastly, she said that we cannot create new carbon sources, and that the world needs to be 80% below 2000 levels by 2050. Dr. Rogers specifically identified the effort to build new coal plants in Michigan and said these needed to be stopped.

The last speaker was David Ullrich, Executive Director of the Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. He briefly discussed issues that cities are faced with that are related to global warming-sewage systems, water run off, snow removal, intense rains and drought. He also said that energy reduction was necessary but offered up no real solutions on how to achieve those reductions. The lack of concrete solutions was the case throughout the night as was a real absence of what sectors of society are the main culprits in causing global warming. The only corporation that was mentioned with any criticism was Exxon-Mobil and that comment was limited to their profits during the recent gas price increases. There was no mention of Exxon-Mobil’s funding of groups that dismiss the seriousness of global warming. In fact, several of the panelists stated that we need less regulation of industry and only needed to have a “real free market” that would allow the business community to figure out ways to make sustainability profitable.

After two hours of commentary from the panelists, the audience was finally allowed to ask questions. The question process was done through written statements that were handed to two volunteers from the Sierra Club who then sifted through questions they decided were relevant to give to the moderator. None of the questions that reached the moderator focused on solutions, but one did confront the DEQ director about his department’s role in granting new coal plant permits. Steven Chester stated that the way that the DEQ operates, they have no power to regulate the energy industry and that they are obligated by law to give the grants to these companies who request them. The only leverage they have, according to Dr. Chester, is to make a recommendation on the status of energy consumption and carbon emission in the state.

Another question that was addressed to the panel had to do with how the issue of global warming is relevant to marginal communities. The response was, “poor people are spending too much money on energy and have less for food. What poor people need to do was to retrofit their homes so that they will be more energy efficient.” The response didn’t take into consideration that many people don’t own their own homes nor does it address the fact that marginal communities are the most negatively impacted by global warming internationally, even though these communities are not responsible for the policy decisions made on this issue.

The only question to address policy had to do with what the panel thought about the Lieberman/Warner bill. Dr. Rogers said it was woefully inadequate and that the Union of Concerned Scientists provided a good analysis of this proposed legislation. David Ullrich said he would be in favor of the legislation since it took a step in the right direction.

Like many other forums that have been held on this topic in the past year, attendees left with little new information or concrete ways that they could be part of any efforts to seriously make a change on the issue of global warming.

Heartwell Delivers State of the City Address

On Saturday, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell delivered his annual address. In it, Heartwell talked about adult literacy, improvements to the public schools, the environment, economic growth, and public transportation.

On Saturday, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell delivered his annual “State of the City” address. In the address, Heartwell described his achievements over the past year and set new goals for the city. His discussion coalesced around five key areas–adult literacy, improvements to the public schools, the environment, economic growth, and public transportation.

Heartwell began by telling the audience that it is Grand Rapids’ people that make the city strong and unique. As a component of this, Heartwell argued that in order to succeed in the global economy, the city’s residents need to be well-educated and life-long learners. He told the audience that right now one in five adults in Grand Rapids is illiterate and that it is essential that everyone learns to read. He touted his work with the Grand Rapids Reads program, which has involved a variety of community organizations to provide adult literacy classes. He also cited continued focus on literacy in the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), reporting a 16% increase in 4th grade MEAP reading scores since 2006.

This segued into a discussion of improvements to the public schools. Heartwell highlighted the existence of thirty after school programs as part of the schools’ “The Loop” program. The city has also worked with GRPS to develop the Expanded Learning Opportunities Network to facilitate the creation of more after school programs. Heartwell mentioned that the 3-6pm period is critical, as that is the time when the most juvenile crimes are committed and a time during which after school programs can provide critical support. He said that the city is working towards having after school programs in every school and only has seven remaining. To pay for these programs, Heartwell said that he has secured some $18 million in outside funding.

Heartwell spent a significant amount of time focusing on the environment during his address, something that is not surprising given his efforts while in office. Heartwell began by highlighting some recent achievements:

“* 20% of our municipal power is generated with renewable resources.

* We have achieved 10% reduction in municipal energy consumption since I took office

* Over the last decade and one-half we have achieved 99.4% reduction in sewer overflows into the Grand River

* 32% of our city-owned vehicles operate using alternative fuels for all but the coldest winter months

* We have introduced hybrid busses into The Rapid’s fleet

*The City Commission has committed to build only LEED-certified municipal buildings in the future. LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a green-building standard.

* LEED standards have been incorporated in our zoning ordinance

* We built the first LEED-certified municipal facility in Michigan (Water/Environmental Services Building)

* We offer free residential recycling with over 32,000 city households using that service”

Heartwell emphasized that these achievements are part of “a process” and that “sustainability” is an ongoing project. He said “…it is a process that involves continuous improvement, experimentation, thoughtful investment and great vision, focused on balancing people, planet, and profits for the benefit of all who live, learn, work, and play here.”

As part of this process, he outlined several new environmental goals for the city. He set a goal to have the city government switch to using 100% renewable electricity by 2020. Additionally, he is working to have the city change its municipal lighting system to light emitting diodes (LEDs) which use considerably less electricity and last longer. He said that money saved could be used to fund other city projects. The final goal mentioned in his speech was to get the city involved in wind power generation. He outlined a tentative plan for mounting small wind turbines around downtown Grand Rapids to produce electricity while also demonstrating the city’s commitment to the environment.

When discussing economic growth, Heartwell emphasized the importance of “public partnerships.” He talked at length about how generous the philanthropic community has been in Grand Rapids, mentioning the DeVos, Cook, Van Andel, etc families. Unsurprisingly, he made no critical comments about how they have used their fortunes for political purposes beyond civic-minded philanthropy. He touted the development as part of the so-called “Medical Mile” as an example of what can be accomplished when investors, philanthropists, and the city work together. He announced the planned opening of a new D&W store at the corner of Michigan and Fuller that will mark the eastern boundary of the district.

On public transportation, Heartwell discussed his support for a streetcar system. He said that following a tour of Portland’s system, he is convinced that it will be a boon to development and will increase public transportation usage. While bus rider ship has increased 11% annually since 2000, more people who are not willing to take the bus will use streetcar according to Heartwell. Additionally, the streetcars system would be connected to the existing bus infrastructure.

Grand Rapids Mayoral Candidate Debate Viewable Online

The Grand Rapids mayoral debate that aired on July 17, 2007 on GRTV is available online. The video features candidates George Heartwell, Jackie Miller, James Rinck, and Rick Tormala–taking questions from the television audience.

The Grand Rapids mayoral debate that aired on July 17, 2007 on GRTV is available online. The video–split into a total of 19 parts–features candidates George Heartwell, Jackie Miller, James Rinck, and Rick Tormala–taking questions from the television audience:

ACORN Hosts “Save Our Youth” Town Hall Forum

On Tuesday, around 100 people attended a forum at Grand Rapids’ Eastern Avenue CRC Church to hear from youth about the lack of youth programs in the city. The forum was held in relation to concerns about violence in the community.

Just over 100 people came out to Eastern Avenue Church to a forum organized by two Grand Rapids chapters of the group ACORN. The forum was designed to give youth an opportunity to tell the community what they want. ACORN organizers facilitated the forum and provided a brief description of their work before youth were invited to speak.

Roughly two-dozen youth got up to address the crowd with ideas and concerns. Some of the ideas were: more after school programs, preventing gun sales to minors, the need for more positive male remodels, a fun place for kids to go to, prevent bullying in the schools, job opportunities, safer schools, and that youth have to make the decisions to not participate in the problem. Those who spoke also addressed some concerns about what they saw as some of the problems in the community. Some of the problems addressed were: single parent homes, the media blaming violence on African-Americans, gang affiliation, revenge, violence in the home, no follow through from adults on solutions, and that the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) engages in harassment.

ACORN had invited various city officials to the meeting and the only one to show up was Mayor George Heartwell. The Chief of Police sent one of his officers to represent the department. Mayor Heartwell addressed the crowd by saying how important it was for community leaders to hear from the youth. He then spoke about a forum the week before that featured members from a group called Pioneers of Peace based out of Detroit. He said they were all former gang members who had been victims of gun violence. However, 30 minutes after that forum took place another young African American male was shot not far from where the forum was held. The Mayor did say that there is a coalition for after school programs in 23 elementary schools, there is the 21st Century program, but was is lacking are programs for high school age youth. The mayor also made the statement that “there are too many guns out there and we have to change that.”

At this point the Mayor responded to just a few questions, since he had another event to go to that night. The first question was “how are the guns getting in our community? The Mayor asked the GRPD spokesperson to address that. The officer responded by saying that most of the guns used in violent acts are stolen guns and being sold in the city illegally. The next questioner asked what happened to the $1 million that was designated for youth jobs 14 years ago. Heartwell responded by say that when John Engler was governor he took the money and gave it to the John Ball Zoo for programming and exhibits. The Mayor did follow up this question with some information about a new youth jobs program in the 3rd Ward through Brown-Hutchinson Ministries called Project Cool. The program will pay students 5 days a week, 4 days of work and one day of job training.

At this point one of the ACORN organizers asks the Mayor if he would be willing to meet with the ACORN Youth Platform committee on a regular basis “to discuss issues and to create future leaders.” The Mayor made a verbal commitment to meet with the committee on a regular basis.

Following the comments from the youth in attendance and the Mayor’s response, adults in the audience were asked to address the crowd with ideas and concerns as it related to youth. Several people got up to speak, with a majority of those speaking talking from a church-based perspective and some even telling the youth “they needed the Lord.” Several people quoted the bible during their comments and some made the suggestion that they need to pray in the streets to stop youth violence. There were some who said that ministers needed to get out from behind the pulpit and into the streets, while one man made the observation “what is wrong with the fact that most of the shootings are happening in an area with all these churches?” Some who spoke provided information on specific programs that already exist such as an African American History class, a martial arts and community service project called the Strong Program, and several church based projects. Some in the audience had suggestions such putting information on billboards in the center city about all the various programs that existed, encouraging parents to spend time in the schools, and the importance of the various youth service providers to work together and stop fighting over the same funding sources. A few other speakers also addressed funding issues. One person mentioned the importance of challenging the City of Grand Rapids, which has proposed to cut funding to two youth-based programs and Kent County Commissioner Paul Mayhue said that people need to confront state lawmakers who supported an end to the Single Business Tax.

A police officer with the Grand Rapids Police Department then addressed the crowd. He said that the GRPD youth initiative consisted of Camp O’Malley, working with the boys and girls club, a cadet program, and a youth police academy. The officer then responded to the issue of police harassment by saying “we will continue to knock doors down if we have to and we don’t harass people. The problems are gangs, drugs and guns.” He was dismissive of concerns about “harassment” and outlined a plan this summer where officers are going to aggressively pull people over near “drug houses” under any pretext that they can (he cited “missing taillights” as a reason) with the goal of using the stops to search cars. When people asked him about whether or not they, as older African-American community members would be subject to this treatment, he indicated that it would be those “near drug houses” and that if they are not near the “drug houses” they will not need to worry. The officer’s comments sounded more like a plan for profiling and harassment rather than a more comprehensive approach. Several people in the audience took issue with the officer and challenged him on several of his points. One woman asked, “Where are the drugs coming from? I know that Black people do not have planes and other vehicles that are bringing the drugs into our community.” The officer did say that drugs were a problem in the suburbs as well, but he never really answered her question about where the drugs are coming from.

Finally, an ACORN organizer reminded the audience that there will be a bus to take people to the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting on May 15 to continue to address city leaders with their concerns.

Mayor Heartwell Takes on Ambitious Social Goals in State of the City Address

In his State of the City address this weekend, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell announced an ambitious agenda for “social sustainability” focusing on combating the effects of Proposal 2, improving the public schools, ending homelessness, and strengthening neighborhoods.

In his 2007 State of the City address delivered on Saturday, Grand Rapids’ mayor, George Heartwell, outlined an ambitious agenda that builds on the achievements that Heartwell claimed he has made in his three years as mayor. In recalling what has been a familiar concept in his term, Heartwell discussed the idea of “sustainability”–in terms of both the environment and economics–but also extend the term to contain a “social” component. This was not new territory for Heartwell, who in addition to highlighting his and the city’s efforts to increase the number of sustainable buildings and reduce energy use, highlighted what he described as his successes in passing bond issues to fund school construction, expanding after-school programs, and undertaking an effort to increase literacy in Grand Rapids. Heartwell called on citizens to come together as they did following the death of former President Gerald R. Ford, with Heartwell stating, “Grand Rapids can continue to make history as a city in which people unite to accomplish what others find impossible.”

Before outlining his goals for the upcoming year and beyond, Heartwell announced what he described as a “remarkable accomplishment.” Heartwell told the audience that last week the city received notice that it has been designated a “Center for Excellence” in education for sustainability by the United Nations. Grand Rapids, which received the designation in large part due to its Community Sustainability Partnership, is the first city in the United States and the second city in North America to receive the designation. Heartwell explained that this one indication of the successes the city has had in achieving its short-term sustainability goals. The mayor also highlighted efforts including the City’s being “well on its way” to accomplishing its goal of 20% renewable energy, installing energy efficient lights in 1/3rd of its traffic lights, reducing its facilities energy consumption by 11%, and running its truck fleet on bio-diesel fuel during much of the year. He called on Michigan to become the 25th state to establish a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) for developing renewable energy resources in the state and described some of his meetings with other mayors to pressure the Governor and the Michigan Public Service Commission to establish an RPS. Heartwell also explained that thanks to efforts to “incentivize” the building of “green” (LEED certified) buildings, Grand Rapids is ranked fourth in the nation for its number of green buildings.

Following his overview of accomplishments, Heartwell focused on his agenda for “social sustainability” and the importance of having a city “where equity, fairness, even-handed deployment of city services and city resources is the norm.” Heartwell asserted that, “All our grand economic plans, all our work for

environmental protection is hollow – and ultimately futile – if we aren’t a city where the poorest among us get equal consideration to those with wealth and power” and outlined an agenda that he believed could get the city towards a position of being socially sustainable. Mayor Heartwell began by raising the issue of Proposal 2 and his opposition, and that of the City Commission, to the ballot proposal that banned affirmative action. He explained that he is no longer contemplating challenging the constitutionality of Proposal 2, not due to a “softening of will” or public opposition, but rather that the City’s lawyers have advised him that the costs of a lawsuit would be substantial and that such a lawsuit would have little chance of succeeding. He said that the City is still considering filing an amicus curie brief in support of a challenge to Proposal 2 in the Eastern District of Michigan court, but has not yet made a decision on its benefits. Instead, Heartwell explained that the City is looking at ways to continue to develop “an increasingly diverse workforce” in Grand Rapids as well as an “increasingly diverse supplier and contractor base” for the City. He said that on Tuesday the City Commission will vote on a “Disadvantaged Business Enterprise” initiative that will help this process. He closed this section of his speech by asserting that the goals he hopes to accomplish can only be achieved by “a community united across gender and racial barriers.”

Heartwell also promised ongoing efforts to support and improve the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS). He argued that:

Our future depends on quality public education for all our children. Not just suburban children, but all children. Not just white children, but all children. Not just children of the economic elites, but all children.

He explained that there are several challenges faced by children in the GRPS district, including “their parents are not pushing them to excel, their peers ridicule academic achievers, structures of race and class cloud their futures, they struggle with the myriad issues of poverty.” However, Heartwell also placed much of the blame on a school system based on inequality in which wealthier suburban school districts receive more money than poor urban districts such as Grand Rapids. He argued that all children have the potential to learn at “high levels” and called for a sustained effort to “close the disparity gap in education between rich and poor… between urban and suburban, between white kids and minority kids.” To this end, Heartwell called for a regional approach to public education that would begin to talk about the forms of collaboration that have benefited the region’s economy and transportation system. He announced an effort to convene a summit bringing together the Superintendents of Kent County schools and top elected officials to address the issue.

Heartwell also renewed his commitment to ending homelessness in Grand Rapids, describing a plan that the city is a part of, the Vision to End Homelessness, that outlines steps to end homelessness by 2014. Its an ambitious plan, especially given Heartwell’s statement that there are close to 2,000 homeless individuals in Grand Rapids. However, Heartwell cited some initial successes with the plan, including the implementation of a “Housing First” model for Kent County that puts homeless people into affordable housing and provides support services to prevent a return to the streets. According to Heartwell, 117 families were housed this year and 91% are still housed after six months. It is not just the individual families that benefit this approach, but society as a whole, with Heartwell citing statistics from other cities showing that the cost for investing in housing homeless people is about $1 for every $5 spent on shelters. Heartwell said that for the plan to work there will need to be non-profit and for-profit cooperation, but expressed hope that most shelters would be closed by 2014.

Mayor Heartwell’s final area of discussion was the need to build “strong neighborhoods” that would build off Grand Rapids’ tradition of strong neighborhood organizing. Heartwell announced a proposal for a new tool, a Neighborhood Improvement District, that would function similarly to the Downtown Improvement District. Heartwell described the Downtown Improvement District as providing critical support for downtown neighborhoods in terms of beautifying streets, employing staff, and promoting events. He explained that he sees neighborhoods as potentially using the District for programs like the downtown ones or youth programs, park enhancements, and crime-stopping initiatives. Neighborhoods would be able to determine their needs and set the level of tax assessment and the city would collect the funds and return them to neighborhood associations. A major caveat of the proposal is that it will likely require state legislation.