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Above the Waterline: Next governor must balance and promote diversity on the environmental board

Above the Waterline: Next governor must balance and promote diversity on the environmental board

Kemp, Perdue, & Abrams

With former Sen. David Perdue challenging the incumbent governor, this years’ gubernatorial election in Georgia looks to be a shambles. Brian Kemp is the Republican primary candidate. It will take place in May. The winner will face Stacey Abrams, voting rights activist, lawyer, former leader of a minority in the Georgia House, on Nov. 8.

Among the many important issues that will likely be discussed this year, including immigration and education, crime, health care, and jobs, as well as immigration and crime, there is one issue that may not receive much attention: the environmental. Clean water, air, land protection, strategies to combat climate change, are all critical issues that impact our health, families, and communities today and into the future.

The Governor’s Mansion will be home to the person who is elected in November. They will play a significant role in shaping Georgia’s environmental policies and investments for the next four to eight years.

The Georgia Board of Natural Resources has 19 members. These individuals make policy decisions that will affect you, your family and your property. However, this group is not well-known. The average term of a board member is at least seven years. They serve this time at the pleasure and discretion of the governor. Republican governors have a history of placing individuals on the consequential board, most often wealthy campaign donors, over the past 18 years.

Georgia’s Republican party isn’t known to be pro environment in Georgia. Since 2005, when the Georgia House and Senate were both Republican majorities, the Republican leadership has been dominated by anti-environment interests. This has made it difficult, if impossible, to protect the water we drink, and the air we breathe.

The current Board of Natural Resources has 16 white men, 2 white women and 1 non-white man. They are not representative of our changing, diversifying state. They also don’t seem to be concerned about the plights of those communities that are most affected by pollution. It is also unacceptable that these board members lack relevant experience or a background in natural resource management, regional planning, environmental science, or other relevant fields.

Some examples of the issues that might be on the boards monthly agendas are: whether hazardous sites near your home or business must be removed; whether industries must monitor their wastewater discharges and/or emissions and report any pollutants; whether studies should be done to assess the impacts of climate change on residents of all states and the actions taken to reduce them; and whether invasive mining can be allowed to affect spectacular natural areas such as the Okefenokee Swamp.

Although federal laws are thankfully able to regulate many aspects of environmental protection at state level, there are still a few areas in which our water, land, and wildlife board members have the authority to make decisions for more than ten millions Georgians.

I know a lot about this board, because in 1999, I was appointed by then Governor to serve on it. Roy Barnes, Georgias last Democrat governor. Barnes had campaigned on the promise to diversify a board that was dominated almost exclusively by white men and monied interests. He believed that I would bring some of his promised diversity because I was a female environmentalist.

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Barnes also appointed an ex-Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, a conservationist was also appointed by Barnes to provide much-needed balance to his Board. Although there were many conservation-minded people already on the board when we joined, our perspective and, more importantly, our collective votes were almost always in the minority.

Sonny Perdue, a Republican, reappointed me to my board in 2006. He had won over Barnes in a surprise election in 2002 and was running again for the position in 2006. Once Perdue had been in office, I saw him leave the board and was unceremoniously dismissed by the Senate Republican leadership. It is an unpleasant tale that will have to be told again. The remaining few conservation-minded board members were already gone by the time I was dismissed. They had not been reappointed nor otherwise disposed.

Elections matter. The Georgia Board of Natural Resources will be filled with the winner of the gubernatorial election. Nobody I know of has suggested that this board should consist only of environmental advocates, scientists, and planners. We have been looking for balanced representation for decades. We want people with diverse backgrounds, relevant skills and broad experiences to replace the Big Business and real-estate development interests (almost always represented in white males) who have dominated this board for decades.

Will the next governor continue to stack the board with people who are primarily financially self-serving or will he/she nominate individuals who will make the best decisions for Georgians in the environment, based on science and facts?

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