When the city of Portland dissolved the former Planning and Sustainability Commission more than a year ago, leaders promised to create two separate commissions tasked with guiding city policy on planning and sustainability, respectively. But while the current planning commission was up and running immediately, development of the sustainability commission is still underway. 

Last month, the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) released a public comment draft for a new Sustainability and Climate Commission (SCC), a body that will serve as a “new governance structure for climate action in Portland and…the official climate connection to other governance bodies at the City of Portland.” 

Environmental advocates are looking forward to the new commission, which will serve as a distinctive voice for climate issues unlike the city has previously seen. But, considering the importance of confronting the climate crisis, advocates want to make sure the SCC has teeth,, and that its membership won’t be corrupted by business interests. 

As planned, the SCC will have 20 members from the community, including four youth commissioners and members with expertise in relevant fields like transportation and renewable energy, as well as non-voting staff liaisons from the city. The SCC will report to the city’s chief sustainability officer, who will work with deputy city administrators to bring policy proposals to the SCC for recommendations and then to city council. 

“Decision-making authority remains with City Council, the Mayor, and/or City Administrator,” the draft proposal says. “However, SCC recommendations will strongly inform decisions.”

People who submitted public testimony on the draft proposal were adamant that remains true.

“I support the general goals outlined in the draft Sustainability & Climate Commission. My biggest concern is that the SCC lacks the authority to implement the policies needed to realize these goals, the majority of which are included in the current Climate Emergency Work Plan,” Portland resident Jennifer O’Connor wrote, echoing many of the other people who submitted testimony.  “The City needs policies in place to fund the Climate Emergency Work Plan and prioritize its implementation.” 

Others reiterated the importance of youth representation, especially if it comes from teenagers who are not typically involved in the political process. It’s unclear from the draft proposal what age range the “youth” commissioners will encompass. 

“As a parent of three, my only comment is to request consideration that the youth positions be truly 13-17 year-olds…we are facing generational loss in government if we don’t authentically empower youth voices,” wrote Chris Silkie, who noted 14-year-olds don’t consider 20-year-olds their voice.” 

Other testimony asked planners to ensure the SCC member appointment process is transparent. As with other city advisory bodies, the current plan for choosing SCC members is largely internal, which advocates fear will result in a skewed membership. 

“A transparent selection process will allay concerns that the Commission will be constrained and intended for show more than substance. Youth, as those who will bear the brunt of a markedly-different climate, must be well represented,” Joseph Stenger wrote. “We are preparing to move away from a business-as-usual situation and change is difficult, so while it is necessary to have business interests included, there needs to be substantial representation from climate and frontline community advocates. We must not allow industries to push SCC decisions away from the best scientific knowledge.” 

Portland City Council will hold a hearing about the ordinance to create the SCC on April 24. Commission planners hope to recruit and appoint members later this year, with the commission’s work officially beginning at the end of 2024 or beginning of 2025.