Have you ever read a headline that made you think you had mistakenly clicked on the Onion’s website, the hyper-satirical “news” publication?
That happened to me last week when I read a press release titled “USEPA Forms First Advisory Board on Great Lakes Issues.” Geez, I thought, more advisers? Advice, formal or not, has been abundant from all quarters when it comes to the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was born of a process that included 1,500 team members. Representatives of governors, mayors, environmental groups and business are regulars at public comment sessions. Then there’s the informal information sharing between these groups and the EPA. You’ve also got the International Joint Commission, the U.S. and Canadian group that advises the governments on trans-border water issues.
Plenty of advice has already been sought and provided. There had to be something I was missing.
In the public interest
I checked how the Federal Register described the board and its duties: “EPA has determined that this federal advisory committee is in the public interest and will assist the EPA in performing its duties and responsibilities.”
There was not much to be gleaned from that government-speak so I went directly to the USEPA’s Great Lakes office in Chicago. “Do we really need more Great Lakes advisers?” I asked. “Will the proposed Great Lakes Advisory Board (GLAB) be asked to chart a new course for Great Lakes restoration? And what about the Science Advisory Board that already exists? How does it factor?”
The EPA responded – bear with me here – by saying the new board “will advise the (Inter-Agency) Task Force” that currently deals with Great Lakes issues. “It also responds to public and Congressional interest in federal agencies seeking input from the region’s best and brightest.” They closed with, “GLRI is doing it’s part to streamline things by using the GLAB to replace some functions of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration and US Policy Committee in an effort to simplify governance around the Great Lakes.”
It would be easy to poke fun at the response given its propensity to use terms like Task Force, Policy Committee, GLAB and my least favorite, the overused “ best and brightest.” Remember, it was President Kennedy’s best and brightest who took us into Viet Nam and Wall Street’s best and brightest plunged us into the current economic depression.
How about some smart, dedicated people who are focused on meaningful results? That’ll work. But let’s err on the side of taking the EPA at its word when it says it’s trying “to simplify governance around the Great Lakes.”
Since the EPA is seeking advice, here’s mine about the advisory board:
• Keep it as small as possible. Not every constituency needs to be heard from now. That was done in the original regional collaboration which was large and more about process than results. Some people will have to be told no. How about one member each representing governors, mayors, environmental groups, tribes and businesses. Add a citizen advocate and a member at large.
• The citizen advocate should be an informed person who isn’t a member of any environmental group or coalition. That’s a perspective that usually isn’t heard.
• No member should apply for or receive restoration funding. Money makes people cautious about what they say for fear of alienating the funding source. The EPA needs candid advice from people without an agenda.
• Keep it’s focus narrow. With all that needs to be done on restoring the Great Lakes it’s easy to develop a long list that isn’t achievable.
• Members need to check pet projects and the priorities of their own organizations at the door. They should advise for the greater good not their narrow self-interests.
• Members should understand that they’re short term advisers, not policy-makers. That helps focus the work. Give the board the tools it needs and let it do its work unfettered by politics. Then thank members for their contribution.
All of this is easy for me to say. I don’t have to deal with all the chicks that want to be fed. These include members of Congress looking for easy win projects for their district and states that won’t pony up their share of the money required to do a project. It includes groups that pander to the decision-makers in hopes of receiving money for their pet project, as marginal as it may be.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative got off to a wobbly start in 2009 when the money started flowing. It was a mile wide and an inch deep, trying to do a little bit of everything for everybody. That doesn’t work with limited resources.
But it is capable of producing results when it focuses. That was evidenced this week by announcement of restoration of Roxana Marsh in one of the country’s most polluted rivers, the Grand Calumet in northwest Indiana. This is a significant achievement.
I hope the EPA is serious about simplifying the governing process for the Great Lakes. And a well-crafted, laser-focused advisory board may help achieve its simplification goal. Let’s hope it works.
We don’t want the Great Lakes to be fodder for the Onion’s headline writers.