Denver, Mike Krause

Q and A with Denver’s new Chief Sustainability Officer

Jerry Tinianow became Denver’s first full-time chief sustainability officer last year, a cabinet-level position in the Hancock administration. Earlier this year I applied for, and was appointed to the Office of Sustainability Advisory Council, formed to give advice and recommendations as denver pursues its 2020 sustainability goals. The council meets monthly.

I thought we should chat about the job and the idea of sustainability.

MK: When did you start your job, how did you come to have this job and briefly, what is your background?

JT: I began serving as Denver’s first chief sustainability officer on July 30, 2012. Sustainability is one of Mayor Hancock’s top priorities, so he conducted a nationwide search for someone who could evolve Greenprint Denver into the Office of Sustainability, which will work to elevate Denver’s reputation as a smart, livable city. Prior to joining the Hancock administration, I was director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission for three years. My passion to work on sustainability issues started in college when I worked with then Congressman (now Senator) Max Baucus of Montana on developing energy and agriculture policy. During law school, I clerked for a year for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. While practicing law at two of Ohio’s largest law firms I continued volunteering with the Sierra Club. Since 2002, I have worked for The National Audubon Society and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission on the stewardship of resources.

MK: I’m not sure if I should welcome you to Colorado, or congratulate you on leaving Ohio. Regardless, what do you think of Denver so far?

JT: Until I came to Denver I was a lifelong resident of Ohio, where my family goes back 100 years. But Denver is irresistible and Mayor Hancock is a gifted and charismatic leader that I am honored to work for.

MK: How did chief sustainability officer become a full time, cabinet level position in Denver?

JT: When Michael Hancock was elected Mayor in 2011, he brought a strong commitment to sustainability to his office and believes it should be a fundamental method of operating all government agencies, which is why he elevated sustainability to the cabinet level.

MK: Many people believe “sustainability” is just code for “we should all live like North Koreans;” that the sustainability movement thinks everyone should live in one room apartments, use compostable toilets, eat just enough calories to subsist (grown in a public garden, or course), get electricity for an hour, twice a day, and oh yea, ride bicycles everywhere. That’s a tall order for just one guy, how are you going to pull that off here in Denver?

JT: No comment.

MK: Seriously, us free market advocates believe that resources are best allocated and priced through voluntary and beneficial exchange in a competitive and open marketplace, with government’s primary role to enforce contracts and property rights, arbitrate disputes (courts) and protect people from force and fraud. Is there room for that philosophy in pursuing sustainability?

JT: Sustainability starts with prosperity. The key is giving people choices. “One size fits all” doesn’t work for clothing, and it also doesn’t work well for systems of energy, mobility, housing, food and other basic resources.

MK: It seems that many policies implemented in pursuit of sustainability involve subsidies, mandates, or both. Examples include Colorado’s renewable energy mandates, tax-payer subsidized loans for green energy companies, tax credits for electric cars, etc. But are mandates and subsidies a sound, or even a sustainable way to pursue sustainability?

JT: It’s interesting that every example you gave is something that was enacted at the state or federal level. At the local level we don’t have a lot of resources to use to subsidize forms of energy, or other products and services related to sustainability, so it’s not an issue we are likely to have to deal with in the Denver Office of Sustainability.

MK: Should advocates of personal freedom and markets be gearing up for a political battle between central control and choice as the City pursues its sustainability goals?

JT: No. One of the chief arguments of those who oppose central control is that we need to let each community decide policy for itself. I operate at that community level — the level of the city. Of the three levels of government — federal, state, local — we’re the one that operates the closest to the people. I’d expect that advocates of personal freedom and markets would favor addressing issues of sustainability at the local level, where they can exercise the greatest influence.

MK: You broke a cardinal rule of working for government by saying that the goal of the Office of Sustainability should be for Denver not to need the Office of Sustainability. Explain that.

JT: When Mayor Hancock interviewed me for this job, he asked me what success would look like if he hired me. I told him that success would be that my office was eliminated — for the right reason. If my office can succeed in helping the City learn how to do business that way, in other words, turn it into an operational habit then there should be no further need for a separate Office of Sustainability.

MK: You have said, and I agree, that we need to start thinking differently about the idea of sustainability post-Great Recession, that some things have changed, probably permanently. Care to expand on that?

JT: The downturn of 2007-09 left government at all levels with far fewer resources. We need to follow Denver’s approach, getting back to basics, operating with fiscal discipline while emphasizing industries that support self-sufficiency and export based on tangible output and sound financing.

In the world of municipal government we have to find ways to foster sustainability that do not rely on higher levels of government writing ever-increasing checks. Some may believe the challenge is overwhelming, but it’s actually quite exciting because it’s going to require us to be innovative to a degree beyond anything we’ve previously experienced.

MK: You have also indicated that although your office has a budget, you want the Office of Sustainability to be self-sustaining though private gifts, grant and donations instead of a city tax-dollar appropriation. Why is that?

JT: A successful sustainability program provides real benefit to the business sector. By assuring the long-term availability and affordability of the basic resources on which our economy operates, we gain a competitive advantage. Our hope is the businesses and community foundations will see the value in that and contribute to making it happen through city-led initiatives.

MK: I feel quite honored to have been appointed to the Denver Sustainability Advisory Council. I hope you don’t end up regretting that. Anything you want to tell readers about the council and our mission?

JT: Our Office of Sustainability is advised by a group of citizen volunteers from a variety of backgrounds who serve on our Advisory Council. One of the fundamental principles of our office is that we need to be open to all points of view. No party or ideology has a monopoly on good ideas when it comes to sustainability.

Mike Krause is vice president of operations at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.  This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post


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