Suzanne Malec-McKenna and the future of Chicago’s environmental programs

November 6 , 2011

A conversation with Suzanne Malec-McKenna, former Commissioner of the former Chicago Department of the Environment

For those of us who had been paying attention, the announcement that Mayor Rahm Emanuel‘s 2012 budget did not include funds for Chicago’s Department of the Environment was not exactly a surprise. In fact, even though the department officially ceases to exist as of January 1, 2012, its presence has already been scrubbed from the City of Chicago website and replaced by a page that simply talks about “Environment.”

According to the Emanuel Administration, they wanted sustainability issues to be addressed in a more centralized way. To that end, the city promoted Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert to the Mayor’s Office. The Mayor also created a Sustainability Council–which he will chair–with a mandate to create and deliver a sustainability plan incorporating goals outlined by his transition team and the Chicago Climate Action Plan. It includes the Chief Sustainability Officer and commissioners of Housing and Economic Development, Transportation, Streets and Sanitation, General Services, Water Management, Aviation, Buildings, and Procurement.

Call me skeptical but this also looks like a way to bury environmental concerns deep in the city bueaucracy. By the way, Weigert was on the hot seat a couple of weeks ago at a gathering of environmentalists and concerned citizens who wanted to know when Chicago will get its act together about recycling. Hey, that’s something I ask all the time!

Like I said, all you needed to know about the direction in which the city was headed was when the new mayor took office and immediately fired Suzanne Malec-McKenna as Commissioner of the DOE. Malec-McKenna was appointed commissioner in 2007 and had been a member of the department for seventeen years. Her list of accomplishments is pretty impressive. These are some of the projects that she either helped create or fostered during her tenue:

Greencorps Chicago
Chicago Center for Green Technology
Chicago Conservation Corps (C3)
Calument Stewardship Initiative
Water Quality Unit
Chicago Climate Action Plan
Waste to Profit Network
Energy Action Network
Recycling Block Club Captains
Restoration and Expansion of North Park Village Center

And more. No wonder Chicago’s environmental community already misses her. In fact, I received this email just yesterday from a listener and community activist who heard that Malec-McKenna was going to be on the show:

Suzanne Malec-McKenna has been the champion for the Lake Calumet Area for her years at DOE. We cannot thank her enough for all she has done. We are crushed that she was not asked to be a part of Rahm’s administration. Now that DOEnv. is in danger, we see why.

What are Suzanne’s thought about the Millennium Natural Reserve that the Gov. will announce next week? How can we smooze this into “protection” for our (ever-assaulted) area? Her expertise is more important than ever!

Thank you –

Sharon Rolek
C3 Leader
Lake Cal Area

One thing Malec-McKenna is still proud to be involved with is the The Prairie Research Institute, If you don’t recognize that name, it might be because it was originally called The Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability. From their website:

Created in July of 2008 to house four state scientific surveys — Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS), the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS), the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS), and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) — as a group under the auspices of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign . Then in 2010, the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program (ITARP) became the fifth division under the new name of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey , further expanding the Institute’s research and service capabilities. The Institute’s mission and vision statement reflect the importance of sustaining our state’s natural resources.

Malec-McKenna is currently working on her Ph.D. in communication. Even with unemployment high in America, this is one talented, smart person who should have a bunch of companies lining up to hire her. I’m honored to call her my friend and I’m very pleased that she is taking time to speak to me on the show.

Mike and Mike work on WCPT’s Holiday Harvest

Last week, when the Faith in Place folks were on the show, I hinted about the possibility of teaming with them to do a healthy, local and sustainable food drive. Well, it’s pretty much on track and this morning, Mike Sanders of “Our Town” and I will be talking about it on my show.

When I say “healthy, local and sustainable,” it turns out that those are terms that can be difficult to define for a food drive. For instance, if you donate canned tuna, which contains lots of protein and is fairly healthy, it’s probably not local. It might not even be sustainable, depending on how the tuna is being caught. Or maybe you want to donate organic potatoes to the drive. Well, some food banks won’t accept produce because it can spoil. See the problem?

I’ve taken on this challenge as a chance to teach folks about the kinds of foods–and other goods–that can and should be donated to food pantries. As I said, it’s not simple, and I hope my listeners and followers on this site and on Facebook and Twitter will help me figure out things.

The Mike Nowak Show staff (uh, that’s pretty much Kathleen Thompson), has set up a page about our drive that has some basics right now, and will be updated in the next few weeks. I hope you’ll check it out from time to time and begin gathering food to donate during our drive. We think we will have a number of drop off locations in the Chicago area, and those should be announced by next week.

The drive will be from December 1 to December 11 of this year. On December 4, Mike Sanders and I will have a joint broadcast of Our Town and The Mike Nowak Show from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m., when we will talk to food experts, our listeners, and perhaps even welcome people to the WCPT Studios parking lot to drop off their goodies. Perhaps we’ll see you there.