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Mayor Daley has been saying for years that he wants to make Chicago the greenest city in the country, but his environmental record is decidedly mixed.
After the mayor, no one has been as deeply involved in the administration's successes and as evasive about its shortfalls as Sadhu Johnston, Daley's chief environmental officer, deputy chief of staff, and frequent cheerleader.
But Johnston won't be on hand to offer justifications or lead the applause for Mayor Daley much longer: he's leaving at the end of this month to become the deputy city manager of Vancouver.
Under Daley the city has embarked on aggressive tree planting, installed a green roof atop City Hall, and mapped out an ambitious plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions—but failed to ensure basic recycling services, force dirty power plants to clean up, or confront the city's traffic and transit problems.
This being Chicago, the news about Johnston hasn't officially been announced here, even though Johnston was just profiled in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as the guy tapped to carry out "Mayor Gregor Robertson's 'Greenest City' initiative aimed at turning Vancouver into North America's pacesetter on clean energy."
When I called the mayor's press office, a Daley spokeswoman confirmed that Johnston is leaving on September 30 but didn't know why he'd taken the new job. She said the mayor hasn't decided whether to pick a new chief environmental officer, a post Daley created for Johnston two years ago. Before that Johnston had served as the commissioner of the Department of Environment. His successor in that job, Suzanne Malec-McKenna, is the mayor's next highest green policy maker.
Johnston has been widely viewed as an innovative thinker and advocate for environmentally friendly issues such as developing green jobs and cutting energy waste by making buildings more efficient. I also give him props for riding the CTA when he wasn't driving his hybrid—I've even seen him on the bus.
Yet he also serves under Mayor Daley, which has meant that he's repeatedly had to try to explain why it's taken 20 years—and counting—for the administration to develop a comprehensive recycling and waste-reduction strategy, or why it did nothing to force the coal-fired power plants on the southwest side to cut emissions. In 2005, for example, I asked him about a proposed ordinance that would impose tougher standards on the plants. He said the administration was of course interested in improving the region's air quality but wasn't sure it had the legal standing to do anything about the coal-burning facilities. "We at this point don't have a position on the ordinance," he said. He didn't sound to me like he believed it himself.
This summer, four years later, environmental advocates were still wondering why the city hadn't done a thing about the plants—couldn't it at least have pressured the state and federal governments to act? Local clean-air groups got fed up and announced plans to sue the plants themselves—and a few weeks later the federal government responded with its own lawsuit.
It sounds like Johnston may have a much different sort of boss in Vancouver. As the Post-Intelligencer described him: "Mayor Robertson is a biker, hiker and founder of a successful company called Happy Planet that produces organic juices, preaches nutrition and fitness, and supports family farms."