The Town Council postponed a vote on a resolution that would declare a climate emergency, instead sending it to a pair of subcommittees to study it more closely and come back with a revised version.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilors said that they supported taking action against climate change, but members of the Council said they did not believe enough discussion had been allowed on the resolution. Some pointed to the fact that it would change the Town’s deadline for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions in Watertown from 2050 to 2035.
“This is a difficult decision for me because I believe climate change represents a real and dangerous threat to life on our planet and it is an emergency we must address,” said Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli. “However, this resolution was placed on agenda for vote with a lack of transparency, and circumventing our commitment for engagement on matters of great importance. Because of that I cannot vote for it tonight.”
Piccirilli noted that the Town Council already approved more than $102,000 in funding to create a Climate and Energy Master Plan for Watertown, and recently a consultant was chosen and work will start on the master plan in coming weeks. The Council also adopted some goals for the plan to meet: 100 percent renewable energy for municipal electricity by 2035 and 100 percent renewable energy for municipal heating and municipal transportation by 2050.
Councilor Caroline Bays said she believes passing a resolution, even with more aggressive goals, is appropriate now before work starts on the Master Plan begins.
“This is more of existential crisis than COVID. We have to start acting on this now, today, and we need to tell the youth that we support this and need to tell the people working on the action plan we support this,” Bays said. “Please, I beg you to support this resolution.”
Others wondered who had put the resolution on the agenda for a vote, including Councilor Anthony Donato.
“I don’t know who drafted the document and how many people were involved but I know it wasn’t open to the pubic because I wasn’t invited to participate in this,” Donato said. “So, I was wondering about the rationale, why approach such an important decision via resolution rather than referring it to a committee for study and then create an action item?”
Councilor Tony Palomba said he put the “Resolution Endorsing the Declaration of a Climate Emergency” on the agenda after receiving a request from a couple of environmental groups made up of Watertown youth, Sunrise Watertown and Extinction Rebellion.
“I think the intention for me, was for Watertown to go on record stating that climate change is an emergency and we would be joining 1,800 other cities and towns across the country, as well as a number of towns around Massachusetts — big ones like Boston and Worcester, and small ones like Bourne and Acton and Provincetown — canonizing and claiming that climate change is an emergency.”
Councilor John Gannon called the resolution “aspirational,” and said that it does not require the Town to take any action.
“It is just a declaration of intent to continue forward and does not stop the process already in place that this town is already tackling quite forcefully and deliberately,” Gannon said.
Piccirilli said that the Council has used resolutions in the past to guide their policy decisions.
“(As a) city with a manager, not a mayor, this Council uses resolutions as policy direction for the administration to carry out,” Piccirilli said. “The mandate to set the (renewable energy) goal in 2019 was a resolution, the mandate to create a Climate and Energy Master Plan was done through resolution. Actually, in this form of government, resolution drives process.”
Councilor Lisa Feltner said she was torn about the decision whether to support the resolution.
“Most people who know me know I do care very much about climate change and addressing all the issues — trees and everything,” Feltner said. “I’ve been one of the people saying I want be front and center, and understand the costs, also savings and benefits that can be realized, can we be more specific in the budget. And educating the public and have greater understanding. Honestly, I am on the fence.”
After more than an hour of discussion, Palomba offered to withdraw the motion to approve the resolution and put in a new motion to send the resolution to be discussed at a joint subcommittee meeting of the Public Works and Economic Development and Planning committees.
Town Council President Mark Sideris agreed with that path for the resolution.
“I do think that, unfortunately, this should have been presented and gone to the committees,” Sideris said. “This would have allowed much broader public discussion. We all agree climate change is a major issue and is an emergency, but I would appreciate if you could withdraw the motion on the resolution and ask someone to refer it to the two committees for full vetting. I think it will have a much better outcome given the fact we have many more people involved.”
The referral to the two committees passed unanimously and will be discussed at a meeting on a date to be determined.