A handful of former members of Visalia’s now-defunct Environmental Committee have gone rogue, and one of the men who put them out of business couldn’t be happier to see them carrying on their work in a new setting.
Only Mandated Committees
In what appears to be a new way of doing business at Visalia City Hall, the city council whittled down the number of citizen committees to just those required by law. Among the citizen-staffed volunteer committees axed so far are the Waterways and Trails Committee, the North Visalia Neighborhood Advisory Committee, and the Disabilities Advocacy Committee, removed by the council the same night in early May that the Environmental Committee met its fate.
The council’s May 3 decision to end the city’s long-standing advisory committees met with a shocked and angry reaction from many of the past and present volunteers. Many of those who staffed the committees did decades of unpaid work and became experts in their fields in the process, able to advise members of the council as they come and go at the whim of the city’s voters, giving city policy stability and consistency.
One of those long-time volunteers, Kathy Falconer–the last chair of Visalia’s Environmental Committee–is leading an effort to keep those local experts together as the founding members of Visalia’s brand new Visalia Environmental Alliance.
“It’s working well,” Falconer said. “The whole effort is to try to get a platform and move forward on a first issue, and get established on Facebook.”
Joining in the formative efforts of the Alliance are many former members of the committees undone by the council, including Richard Garcia, a one-time member of the Waterways and Trails Committee; Dale Simmons, past president of the Environmental Committee and former president of the League of Women Voters of Tulare County; and the two former members of the Environmental Committee–Dustin Johnson and Holly Deniston-Sheets–who have been added to the membership of the city’s Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC), the single body intended to address all issues once handled by the four eliminated committees.
Educating and Advocating
The mission of the Alliance is advocating for responsible use and protection of the city’s limited natural resources, mainly through educational campaigning. First on the agenda for the Alliance is the ongoing drought and the resulting vanishing groundwater supply, Falconer says.
“There are issues with water and the drought that really stand out as significant,” she said. “Our groundwater is so low, historically low. With no rain, we have to do our part to conserve the water in both residential and agricultural situations.”
The group also hopes to act as a go-between for citizens with environmental concerns and City Hall.
“There are many individuals in our community who may be aware of environmental issues in our city but have no idea how to go about making changes,” Falconer said.
A Better Result
Acting as a group unaffiliated with the city, Falconer says they can likely reach a wider audience of concerned citizens. They hope to provide them with green tips to reduce carbon footprints and understanding why that’s important, as well as keeping voters apprised of the city’s actions or lack thereof regarding major environmental issues.
“There are a lot of things the city is doing with the environment people need to be aware of,” she said. “I do recognize that in the Visalia climate action plan for 2020 there were many things they did, such as developing native plants along waterways to preserve them. They have sought a water resources staff person. I don’t know if they have one.”
The group is also hoping to do something else the city has found difficult to achieve, getting the city’s younger citizens directly involved in caring for Visalia and its surrounds.
“We’re hoping to get the youth involved,” Falconer said. “We want them to take up the cause.”
Leadership at the city seems to share that desire for youthful participation, as the two members of the Environmental Committee it moved to the CAC were the dissolved committee’s youngest members.
“I complement the move,” Falconer said. “They (Johnson and Deniston-Sheets) have the mindset that they are a little more astute in communications.”
A Sense of Urgency
Communicating the level of urgency needed in humanity’s response to the climate crisis, and especially getting information into the hands of Visalians about how to respond at home, are absolutely key to maintaining a livable environment, and the job the city is doing just isn’t enough, those who form the Alliance believe.
“That’s why they’re frustrated,” Falconer said. “The stream (of information) has to be a large flowing river, and right now it’s a piddly flowing creek.”
The group intends to use social media, particularly Facebook, to spread its message and grow its local audience.
Happy for the Help
“Wonderful” is the word Visalia City Councilman Brett Taylor used to describe the Alliance.
“This is wonderful,” he said. “We (city council members) said that we would expect there were circumstances when we’d need more people to participate, and this is perfect. This could potentially work out really well.”
Taylor led the exploration of the city’s committee structure that led to the dissolution of all by the state-mandated citizens committees. That move, critics said, was a blow to participation in city government by volunteers. The Visalia Environmental Alliance should help fill the void.
“I love when the people are involved in the community,” Taylor said. “I think it’s fantastic they’re taking this passion and running with it.”