Two steps into ‘net zero emissions month’ and zero steps toward knowing anything

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Panelists are introduced at last week’s panel on “Getting to Net Zero.” (Photo: Marc Levy)

Panelists are introduced at last week’s panel on “Getting to Net Zero.” (Photo: Marc Levy)

The “net zero emissions month” declared by our mayor is off to a terrible start. The first two stops on the calendar toward approving or rejecting the net zero petition, which asks new city developments of 25,000 square feet or more to fight climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, were a Planning Board meeting and panel discussion – neither of which paid any attention to the actual proposal.

The Wednesday panel discussion, called “Getting to Net Zero,” was the worse of the two. It had five experts telling an audience loaded with elected and appointed officials that, despite an affirmed climate emergency that will submerge half the city within decades: net zero was next to impossible; a go-slow approach was fine; and that the petition was freaking out developers and sending them off to build in Somerville or the suburbs instead of in Cambridge.

But the one version of “net zero” the panel didn’t discuss when convened by the mayor was the only version that matters to Cambridge: the so-called Connolly petition that suggests a net zero emissions plan for the city.

Panelists confirmed after the event Wednesday that the petition was simply not part of the discussion they were asked to hold.

That means that pretty nothing they said mattered as the process of looking at the Connolly petition rolls on. It expires Nov. 18.

City officials must be commended for attending the panel discussion, but reminded if they quote those expert panelists in the coming weeks that, again, pretty much nothing they said mattered.

The board defers

The Planning Board meeting that took place the day before was different: What the appointed officials of the board heard was relevant, but they probably didn’t hear very much.

The writers and backers of the petition tried to explain their changes in response to comments by the city’s Community Development Department, but board members declined to hear them. And the words of support for the petition from 24 members of the public – backed by another couple of dozen supporters who didn’t speak – fell into the “needn’t have bothered” category, according to the introductory warning of chairman Hugh Russell.

Why? Because the board is deferring to a task force on the net zero petition created by the City Council, and the task force hasn’t met yet.

“My request to the people that are speaking to us is to understand that situation. Don’t try to convince us that you’re right, because I think you’ve already convinced us that you’re addressing an important subject that needs to be addressed, and we’re not going to weigh in whether you’re right or wrong, because we don’t have the expertise,” Russell said. “There are certainly interesting and attractive ideas in this proposal, so rather than spending an hour and a half pointlessly talking about this at this board, I would ask you to be brief and understand the context in which we are dealing with this.”

What was exasperating about the hearing was that note that “we don’t have the expertise,” which was made even plainer later in the hearing when board member Steven Cohen threw out an even more glib note of studied helplessness: “We’re not scientists,” he told the crowd.

What the board members are, though, is not simply architects, engineers and professionals who should be grappling with net zero principles more and more in their everyday life – but the Planning Board, to which the City Council referred the matter of the Connolly petition in late June. And the same board who had a net zero hearing Aug. 20.

So they’ve had a good three months to do what people do when they know they’re going to be asked to look at an issue: Check out the provided materials. Read on the matter. Study up. You know, maybe google something.

The public needs confidence

It’s all well and good if board members believe they’re going to get educated on the issues as the Connolly petition is assessed and discussed by the task force, but they’ve already held two meetings with lengthy public comment on matters they’re still shrugging about. How do they judge the merit of what the public says if they know less than the people speaking?

This is a replay of how the board saw in the new year – holding a hearing on medical marijuana dispensaries at which they expressed doubt that they were the right board to be hearing the issue and, despite it having been on their agenda for weeks, asking questions that showed they knew far less about the issue than the members of the public awaiting their wisdom. But this is also a continuation of the passive approach the board took on the city’s unenforceable light ordinance. Getting the ordinance fixed has been a battle fought mainly by a single citizen, Charles Teague.

The council really must stop seeking opinions from a board so content with such an unengaged approach to policy issues important to the public. Hit the books, folks.

The public needs confidence that the issues being decided by city officials are backed by serious attempts to weigh the pros and cons. That doesn’t come from a board that won’t do its homework and panel discussions that aren’t asked to discuss the issue at hand.

Next up on the net zero tour of city boards: A roundtable/working meeting of the council to discuss the Connolly petition meets at 3 p.m. Thursday at City Hall. No public comment will be taken, and the meeting will not be televised.

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