After Regime Change, Here's What's Happening With Miami's Resilience Office

King tide flooding in Brickell, October 2016.
Last month, the City of Miami removed its climate czar, ostensibly the person most responsible for making sure the city fights global warming and rising tides. In doing so, city leaders incensed several members of the public and prompted a scathing editorial in the Miami Herald.

In a budget proposal for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the city removed the standalone position of chief resilience officer, which has been held by Jane Gilbert since its creation in 2016. The proposed budget also removed $831,000 from the Office of Resilience and Sustainability, leaving it with $0 in funding.

The public outcry ruffled feathers within the city administration, even prompting Miami Mayor Francis Suarez to remark at a meeting of the city's Climate Resilience Committee that "the optics on this were terrible." The changes weren't properly communicated, the mayor said.

The city then clarified that the Office of Resilience and Sustainability was not going away, but instead merging with the Department of Resilience and Public Works, under the leadership of the current public works director, Alan Dodd. City leaders tell New Times the department also is slated to get more than $1 million in added funding next year.

Some community members and environmental activists were caught off guard by the change and worried that merging the two offices would lead to a weakened focus on resilience initiatives.

"We're concerned about the long-term health and safety of the office. We want to make sure it stays because there's still a tremendous amount of work to be done," says J.P. Brooker, the Florida director of Ocean Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit that worked with Gilbert in the past.

Even within the resilience office itself, staffers were unsure of their future until recently.

Alissa Farina, a resilience program manager with the city, tells New Times that although the office staff knew Gilbert would be retiring, they didn't know about the budget or how the office would change.

In a conversation with New Times, Dodd, the outgoing public works director and new chief resilience officer, sought to clear up some of the confusion about Miami's resilience work and address the priorities for his new position.

When it comes to the operational budget, Dodd says, the Department of Resilience and Public Works will actually be getting an increase of more than $1 million, based on the current budget proposal. The confusion about funding came because the city slashed the stand-alone chief resilience officer position, but Dodd says the merger was a long time coming and a matter of efficiency.

In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the Department of Resilience and Public Works had a budget of $26.3 million, and the Office of Resilience and Sustainability had an additional $831,000 for all of its projects. In the new proposed budget, the Department of Resilience and Public Works, with Dodd serving as chief resilience officer, will have a budget of $28.5 million — $1.3 million more than both departments combined last year.

The budget will be debated, adjusted, and ratified by the city commission in September. The proposed increase for Resilience and Public Works may change during budget deliberations.

Deputy director of public works Juvenal Santana will move up to the position of director of public works, according to a new organizational chart.

Dodd says he plans to strengthen the Resilience Action Group, an interdepartmental body that's meant to get every part of the city on the same track in terms of resilience.

Farina says that in the past, environmental initiatives would have trouble getting off the ground without the direct involvement of higher administrators like the city manager. Now, Dodd says, Mayor Suarez and City Manager Arthur Noriega will attend meetings of the Resilience Action Group more frequently, which will help plans move along more smoothly.

As for his goals, Dodd says he wants to make Miami carbon neutral by 2050 by eliminating its carbon footprint. Suarez set that goal back in January, and Dodd says part of his plan to get there is to convert every streetlight in Miami to LED, which will take ten to fifteen years and cooperation from several departments.

Farina points out that resilience isn't just about climate change and greenhouse gases. The Office of Resilience and Sustainability is as much about social programs as it is about nature, she says.

Part of the office's "Resilient305" strategy deliberately mentions equity issues in Miami, including the city's lack of affordable housing and its population of vulnerable, low-income residents. Dodd says he wants to bring every department into the Resilience Action Group so the social aspects of resilience are as present as the environmental effects.

"One thing I want people to understand is that this really is an attempt by the city to build on the momentum built by resilience programs and bring it into every department as a leader for other cities," Dodd says. "My job is to pick up where Jane left off, take those plans, and get them into our way of doing business."