By: Rhiannon Fionn (Creative Loafing)
When Shannon Binns launched Sustain Charlotte in 2009, like many activists who've come before and after him, he felt unheard by local government. For him, the path forward for any city wishing to sustain itself is clear, and it's built upon three pillars: economic, environmental and social. "They must be in balance," Binns said.
On June 25, the city of Charlotte took a step toward the balance that Binns has preached about for nearly a decade. By unanimous vote, the "Sustainable and Resilient Charlotte by 2050 Resolution" was adopted.
Widely praised during the public comments leading to the vote, at-large councilwoman Dimple Ajmera is credited with developing the stakeholder group that led to the unanimous vote. That group consists of more than 40 entities including multiple environmental organizations and Duke Energy.
Binns says semantics created a hang-up early on.
"The most controversial thing was over language," Binns said. The choices are "carbon free, [carbon] neutral and renewable." Carbon-free energy includes nuclear, he said, "which is kind of critical for getting Duke Energy on board. While they're not spelling out nuclear in the resolution, they're being realistic with trying to get the city to 100-percent zero carbon. Without nuclear that wasn't possible. Everyone can agree on zero carbon."
Michael Zytkow, Sustain Charlotte's lead policy wonk working on the sustainability plan, was surprised by the process. Zytkow has been heavily involved with city politics since emerging as a leader of the Occupy Charlotte movement in 2011. During the three-month occupation protest, he had a contentious rapport with City Council that sometimes landed him in jail.
"The stakeholder process is totally different than the way things usually are," Zytkow said.
In 2013, Zytkow gathered more than 3,000 petition signatures over nine weeks just to appear on the ballot for city council as an unaffiliated candidate — the first person to do so in Charlotte. A self-proclaimed "radical centrist," he lost the election but remains dedicated to the policy-making process in Charlotte, though he said his approach has changed.
During Occupy Charlotte, Zytkow said, "There was no stakeholder process. There was no effort from the city to reach out. We would hand out slips of paper with the council members' phone numbers and ask Occupiers to call and no one remembers any of them calling back.
"Usually you have to just about pull teeth to get the council to listen," he said, but the stakeholder process for the sustainability resolution "was a good opportunity for us to hash things out. It's not always pretty, but that general transparency was really refreshing. It's certainly a model for every issue the city deals with, and a really good way to get people involved and help them feel heard. It makes people feel included."
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