Oak Park Village Hall, 123 Madison St. (File)

Oak Park village board members have made a commitment as part of their annual goals to reverse climate change and increase local sustainability initiatives. As of Monday night, the board has secured a consulting firm that will assist in producing a detailed plan and engage the community with the efforts during the course of roughly a year.  

Following the recommendation of staff, the village board voted unanimously Sept. 20 to hire Wisconsin-based engineering and consulting firm GRAEF to carry out a “comprehensive sustainability, climate action and resiliency plan” for the Oak Park community. The cost of the $125,000 contract will come from the village’s sustainability fund.

Present at the meeting were GRAEF’S Stephanie Hacker and Marcella Bondie Keenan, newly hired by the village as its internal climate change coordinator. Hacker will serve as the project lead for the consultant while Keenan will play that role internally at village hall. Keenan has worked in the environmental sector for 20 years, according to Deputy Village Manager Ahmad Zayyad, and holds a master’s degree in urban planning.

The unanimity of the vote notwithstanding, some trustees still had reservations regarding GRAEF’s proposal. Trustee Ravi Parakkat, a former member of the village’s Energy and Environment Commission (EEC), worried the proposed schedule did not provide adequate time for inventorying Oak Park’s greenhouse gases, developing emissions drivers and forecasting future emissions.

Hacker told him that GRAEF could modify the timeline with staff upon starting the project, extending certain areas and shortening others.

Trustees Susan Buchanan and Arti Walker-Peddakotla shared concerns that GRAEF’s proposal lacked particulars with regard to the firm’s plan to prioritize equity and did not provide examples of how it had successfully done so in past projects.

GRAEF’s proposal and references indicated a “nuanced and bold understanding of what’s needed to operationalize equity and planning,” according to Keenan, who added that the firm “specifically named the need for representation from Black, indigenous and people of color, parents, people aged 65 and older, and non-English speaking populations.”

Before turning the metaphorical microphone over to Hacker, Keenan said much of that information was gathered during interviews and conversations with references.

By way of example, Hacker told the board GRAEF, while working on a similar project in Milwaukee, “really focused on individual relationships” and paid very close attention to “community relationship history in order to elevate the focus on social equity and also in racially equity.”

Buchanan, one of the founders of the resident-led ad hoc climate sustainability action group, asked how GRAEF engaged the community during that project.

“We focus intensely, both during the pandemic when it’s safe to do so and before the pandemic, in being present,” said Hacker. “We’ll navigate how that’s safe to do so as we go through our next several months together.”

Looking for more specificity, Buchanan rephrased her question, asking point blank how GRAEF intended to engage “under-represented and under-resourced” community members.

Hacker told Buchanan that GRAEF will “drill down those specifics” during the first  meeting with village staff to customize a framework to meet the expectations of the village board and the community groups with which the firm will be engaging.

“It really is highly and critically dependent on that first meeting with the committees that we’ll work with in Oak Park,” said Hacker.

Walker-Peddakotla was disappointed not to see the words “environmental justice” in GRAEF’s proposal. She quoted in full to the board the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) definition of the term: “Fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”

“If your company is really focused on that, then I would have expected, at least at a bare minimum, the words ‘environmental justice’ in the proposal,” Walker-Peddakotla said. “I see that as a big miss in this.”

She added that “communities of color” are often the least responsible for climate change but bear the brunt of the impact of it.

Hacker told Walker-Peddakotla it was “with regret” that environmental justice was omitted from GRAEF’s proposal but stated that it was “near and dear to [her] heart,” being a city planner by training with a background in environmental science.

Walker-Peddakotla cut in to tell Hacker that she felt the same way about food justice, which was also not mentioned in GRAEF’s proposal, as she does about environmental justice. The trustee believes both should be core part of any governmental climate resiliency and action plan.

Zayyad told the board that anything missing in the proposal could be incorporated into the agreement’s scope of services, which will come back to the board after internal review. He also told her that the EEC would review the board’s comments during its October meeting. 

Before deciding on GRAEF, the village received a total of 13 proposals, eight of which were found qualified. Those eight then received a price-blind review by staff across different departments. Each reviewer used a standardized rubric to score applicants based on professional experience, technical approach and community engagement. The top three scorers received an additional score based on price, which narrowed the pool down to two firms. Staff recommended GRAEF, and its subcontractor Eastern Research Group Inc. (ERG), following references checks and interviews.

“We looked at three key factors, which have been both highlighted by the board and the Environment and Energy Commission (EEC) repeatedly: equity, community engagement and greenhouse gas modeling accuracy,” said Keenan.

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