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City of Miami Proposal For Fighting Climate Change Rattles Environmentalists

The city of Miami, among the first major cities to hire a resilience chief, now wants its public works director to take over the job after the former chief resigned earlier this month.

The city of Miami, among the nation’s most vulnerable to sea rise and rising temperatures driven by climate change, is reorganizing the way it fights climate change.

Under a draft budget unveiled this week, city manager Arthur Noriega has proposed having the city’s public works director take over the resilience office and do double-duty as resilience chief. The decision comes just weeks after the city’s first-ever resilience chief, Jane Gilbert, announced she was leaving.

The move came as a surprise to the network of advocates, scientists and public officials who work on resiliency. The chair of the city’s sea rise task force learned of the plans Thursday.

Like others, Miami Waterkeeper Executive Director Rachel Silverstein thought Gilbert would be replaced and worries the move will slow work. 

"Now is not the time to take our foot off the pedal," she said.  “Resiliency is not just about sea level rise. It's public health, it's disaster planning, it's water quality, it's walkability and so many things in between. So I really do worry that removing the chief resilience officer position is going to silo the work.”

Credit Miami-Dade County
Miami-Dade County
Miami Resilience Chief Jane Gilbert, left, pictured with Miami Beach resilience chiefs Susy Torriente and Jim Murley. Torriente resigned last year for a job at Jacobs Engineering in Orlando.

Gilbert was hired as Miami’s first resilience chief after the Rockefeller Foundation selected the city, along with Miami-Dade and Miami Beach, to be part of its 100 Resilient Cities project. Rockefeller provided a two-year grant to pay for the position.

Gilbert had previously worked for the Miami Foundation and helped write the application that helped the city win a spot in the national program that promised to help prepare some of the nation’s riskiest communities. Last year, Gilbert helped unveil a blueprint outlining plans that expanded the scope of climate change to larger issues, including homelessness and traffic.

“If we have a hurricane and the homeless population is not taken care of, we’re going to have far more threats to human lives if we don’t have systems in place,” Gilbert said at the time.

She declined to comment Thursday.

The proposal eliminates the office’s $813,000 budget and moves two project managers and an assistant to public works, overseen by Director Alan Dodd, a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineer colonel.  The new resilience and public works budget would increase by $2.2 million.

Dodd has helped steer the city through the Corps’ $4.6 billion plan to help protect the city from hurricane storm surge. Dodd did not respond to a request for comment.

City Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district covers 90 percent of the waterfront, said the COVID-19 crisis is forcing the city to make tough choices, but resiliency work should not be sacrificed.

“I understand where [Noriega, the city manager] is going from a budgetary perspective. I just want to make sure he stays on track,” he said. “Resilience has a broader responsibility than just public works.”

Russell said he worries affordable housing and other climate-related issues might not fall within the duties of public works.

“I have good faith in Director Dodd. And I think he does think beyond the scope of water flow,” he said. “But I need to make sure that's within the scope of his job.”

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.