Can Atlanta catch a climate funding windfall?

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

The city’s new chief sustainability officer seeks to rebuild a diminished office

Atlanta once positioned itself as a leader in the Southeast when it came to addressing climate change.

It was one of the first U.S. cities to appoint a chief sustainability officer in 2009 under then-Mayor Shirley Franklin. A few years later, her successor, Kasim Reed, won praise as he grew the office to 20 staffers, launching an urban farming program and auditing city and commercial buildings to slash water and power consumption.

But today, the city’s Office of Sustainability and Resiliency is a shell of its former self with just five employees. The office diminished in stature under former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and several leadership changes led to the office hemorrhaging three-quarters of its staff, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation shows.

A recent Brookings Institution report, meanwhile, ranked Atlanta in the bottom five among 50 U.S. cities for climate planning.

Now nine months into the job, Mayor Andre Dickens has appointed Chandra Farley, an energy consultant with deep roots in advocacy, as his sustainability chief. Farley, who started Thursday, is the office’s first permanent director in almost a year. The stakes are high.

In August, President Joe Biden signed the largest bill devoted to tackling climate change in the nation’s history. That bill and a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure law are set to unleash billions in federal assistance to cities to boost climate resiliency and address environmental impacts on communities of color.

Atlanta is getting hotter and more crowded. It also remains one of the most economically unequal cities in the nation, and research shows poor and minority residents are more vulnerable to climate impacts. Atlanta’s ability to demonstrate it has a clear list of projects and the capacity to deliver them will be vital for the city to claim its share of funding, experts said.

“It’s not like a pot of gold is just dumping down on places even if they’re not doing anything,” said Joseph Kane, one of the Brookings report authors. The places most likely to capture federal assistance, he said, “are those that are ready to hit the ground running.”

Farley acknowledged the challenge before her while speaking on a recent panel of women environmentalists at Agnes Scott College.

“This is going to be a time of rebuilding,” she said. “I’ll be counting on this community to hold me accountable and help hold our mayor accountable to the commitments that Atlanta is ready and primed to deliver on.”

The AJC interviewed more than a dozen people, including former city employees and external experts. The AJC also reviewed internal city records, financial documents, communications, reports and personnel files.

Credit: City of Atlanta

Credit: City of Atlanta

Farley declined an interview request from the AJC, referring inquiries to Dickens’ spokesman, Michael Smith. Smith refused to make available Farley or anyone else from the city, and barred employees from speaking with the AJC.

At a Tuesday workforce development event, Dickens fielded two questions from an AJC reporter on the sustainability office.

“This administration is fully committed to sustainability,” Dickens said, pointing to his elevation of Farley to a cabinet-level position so that she can have influence “broadly across all departments.”

“I tie things like workforce development and sustainability together, as you see here today, and food insecurity, so we’re pushing forward on it,” Dickens said.

Cities’ key roles

Cities consume about 75% of the world’s energy and account for up to 80% of its greenhouse gas emissions, according to UN-Habitat, the United Nations’ urban planning agency.

Cities also control much of the physical infrastructure that needs to be upgraded to reduce planet-warming emissions and make communities more resilient to inevitable change. That includes transit and transportation, land use and building codes.

When Reed became mayor in 2010, he said he made sustainability a priority.

“We’re going to be dealing with issues of climate change, certainly, for the rest of our lives, and I felt that we had an obligation to get serious about it,” Reed said.

Atlanta was one of just three cities among 14 initial partners — most of them businesses — to join the federal Better Buildings Challenge in 2011. The city was recognized by the Department of Energy for meeting its goal of reducing commercial energy and water use by 20% in 2019, a year early.

In 2015, the U.S. Green Building Council hailed Atlanta as the first city in the Southeast to require all city-owned buildings and large commercial buildings to track, report and audit their energy use. It was the first city nationwide to include water audits, according to USGBC.

Stephanie Stuckey, an environmental lawyer and former state lawmaker, served as sustainability chief for three years under Reed and then Bottoms.

“It was an economic driver, in large part, for him,” Stuckey said of Reed’s sustainability push. “That doesn’t mean he didn’t care about the environment, but he was laser-focused on developing Atlanta as a world-class city.”

During this time, the city published a climate action plan that created targets for reduced emissions, expanded the city’s fleet of electric vehicles and adopted a plan to install solar panels on municipal buildings.

The Office of Sustainability rebranded to the Office of Resilience and more than tripled in size to 20 employees, including grant-funded positions and staff loaned from other departments such as watershed and planning.

Mario Cambardella was hired by Atlanta as its first urban agriculture director.

“The leadership style was ... ‘You have your mission — go,’” Cambardella said of Reed.

‘Momentum had ceased’

In 2018, a new administration brought new priorities. Within a few months Bottoms’ swearing in, Stuckey left.

She was eventually replaced by Amol Naik, a corporate attorney with little background in sustainability or environmental issues. Around the same time, sustainability merged into a new department: the Mayor’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

Progress soon slowed, morale suffered and many staffers left, according to former employees.

“The momentum had ceased, really,” said Cambardella, who resigned in 2020.

Not long after taking over, Naik was the subject of a gender discrimination investigation by the city’s human resources department. Though a report would later state that there was “insufficient evidence” to substantiate claims against Naik, witness accounts collected during the investigation and obtained by the AJC describe a department in decline.

Credit: Trees Atlanta

Credit: Trees Atlanta

One of Naik’s direct reports resigned, citing his management style and describing him as sensitive, petty and politically ambitious.

Another employee who left for the private sector said staff were frustrated because Bottoms had not made sustainability a priority.

Multiple employees noted the high number of staff departures, especially among women and people of color.

Naik resigned in 2019, after about a year on the job.

In a written statement to the AJC, Naik pointed to a citywide clean energy plan and other achievements, but expressed regret for some of his management decisions, missteps he attributed to his background working in the private sector.

“As is natural during a transition in administrations and leadership, as well as a new organizational structures, the new structure wasn’t popular with everyone, resulting in some staff turnover,” Naik said.

The department’s next two leaders also left after short tenures and the job has been unfilled until Farley’s hiring.

Reached by phone, Bottoms, now a Biden adviser, declined to comment. She said she needed clearance from the White House to speak about her time as mayor. The White House press office did not immediately respond.

Peer cities move ahead

Atlanta has a lot of ground to make up.

Boston, Phoenix and Philadelphia have robust sustainability or environment departments as well as dedicated sustainability experts embedded across city government.

“We have city-wide convenings about strategies like the climate action plan [and] we ask each department to participate,” said Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego. “Our employees have been very enthusiastic about that; I think they feel those as both good opportunities to advance their career and then contribute to a better city.”

Mandy Mahoney, Atlanta’s first sustainability chief under Franklin, who now leads a national clean energy nonprofit, said she has not been impressed with Atlanta’s sustainability efforts in recent years.

“They don’t have their act together,” Mahoney said. “If you don’t have the sophistication inside the sustainability office now, you’re going to just not be able to get the funding available.”


A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/

How we got this story

The AJC spoke with more than a dozen people, including former city employees and external experts. The paper also filed open records requests for budgets, phone directories, organizational charts, annual reports, correspondence, financial and personnel records with the city of Atlanta. The city has provided some but not all of these records. The AJC also sought documents and recordings of interviews related to a 2019 gender discrimination investigation of a former department head. The city initially said recordings did not exist. The AJC received recordings of interviews conducted as part of the investigation from a confidential source. Officials refused to make any employees, including those in leadership positions in sustainability, available for interview, and barred them from speaking with the AJC. A city spokesman submitted answers to written questions shortly before publication.