Sustainable Jersey: How sustainability became my brand and achieved my campaign promises

December 20, 2017


Woodbridge Mayor John E. McCormac explains Sustainable Jersey to mayors in Connecticut 

On November 26, 2017 at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities’ annual convention, Sustainable Connecticut (CT) was launched. It is modeled on Sustainable Jersey. More than 200 municipal, business and nonprofit leaders partnered with Eastern Connecticut State University, the Connecticut Economic Resource Center and Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) over the last year to create Sustainable CT.

I am proud to have had the opportunity to support the transfer of what we consider a cutting-edge system based approach for municipal sustainable development to our colleagues in Connecticut.

Mayor John E. McCormac of Woodbridge Township, travelled to the conference to give a straight talk speech-mayor to mayor-to explain how Sustainable Jersey has worked for his township. Under Mayor McCormac’s leadership, Woodbridge Township received our Sustainability Champion award eight times in the large population category. Woodbridge achieves the highest point totals in the state for each year it participates. Mayor McCormac gave a tremendous speech in Connecticut that left a lasting impression. With his permission, we would like to share it with you. – Randy Solomon

Woodbridge Mayor John E. McCormac’s Speech at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (Excerpts)

“I just completed my eleventh year as mayor of Woodbridge Township. Sustainable Jersey was just a concept back when I was first sworn in; it took three years to bring Sustainable Jersey to fruition in 2009. Sustainable Jersey was a creation of our fantastic New Jersey State League of Municipalities which is our advocacy group in Trenton for each of our 565 governmental entities.

I am here because of the work done by the great staff of the Township of Woodbridge who have made us the most sustainable town in New Jersey for eight of the last nine years. Our involvement began rather innocently when Woodbridge Chief of Staff Caroline Ehrlich came across a League magazine article describing this new program which was actually a competition among towns to see which town was the most sustainable. Not having a clue about what it involved, or how it would work, I had just one demand– if we are going to get in it, we better win it.

If the competition was handicapped like a horse race, we probably would have been a long shot behind towns like Princeton, Highland Park and Maplewood which we knew were doing great things for the environment. What we did not realize, however, is how much we were already doing within the Sustainable Jersey model as part of our basic governmental operations. We were just as progressive and aggressive as others – we just did not realize it. Many of you will have the same experience.

We went through the requirements for Sustainable Jersey and realized immediately that we had enough points to be qualified – points from things like solar panels, biodiesel fuels, a Farmer’s Market, an Environmental Commission, a recycling center, an anti-idling program and an environmental resource inventory. We started putting our programs and services into the required Sustainable Jersey format and realized we were pretty good at this environmental thing. Many of our peers quickly realized the same thing.

What makes Sustainable Jersey so great is that the program provided hundreds of other ideas as to what we could do to become greener–or in my case, what we had to do to win. They set out the points involved in each action item so towns could decide which additional steps to take that made the most sense for them. They prepared the framework for success and then each town could decide just how much effort they wanted to put into being certified or go further to place at the top of the competition. Sustainable Jersey even has a category for “Innovative Ideas” or actions that they did not yet think of, that we and others could use to get credit. Sustainable Jersey laid out ideas and resources so that we could learn more about the options which is why Carol frequently, respectfully and affectionately calls their model: “Sustainability for Dummies.”

We started involving our residents in the program. We added a special green edition of our quarterly newsletter, added a Greenable Woodbridge link to our web site, held workshops, developed green educational materials, started a Buy Local campaign and wrote a Sustainable Community Plan. Carol hosts a Sustainable TV show every quarter with business leaders, industry experts and local residents doing remarkable things to highlight our accomplishments and challenge and encourage our residents and businesses to follow suit.

Recognizing that competition is what got us interested in the program to begin with, we started competitions among others in our town. Apartment complexes, office buildings, businesses, schools and residents competed to see who was the most sustainable. Government is one leg of the three-legged stool that helps our environment. Our businesses and residents were incredibly happy to participate with us in the challenge. All three need to be involved to make the effort truly successful and government is the only entity that can put everyone together on the same page.

We applied for grants, including ones from Sustainable Jersey, and we strategically use tax incentives primarily on contaminated brownfields sites to encourage the highest level of cleanups possible. We used a vacant store in Woodbridge Center to open a green museum of the future, started a microgrid plan (I still don’t know exactly what a microgrid is), encouraged restaurants to recycle food waste separately and of course we implemented social media to reach a segment of the population we otherwise would not have reached.

Many of those things we would have done anyway, but many we would never have thought about without the help of Sustainable Jersey. We challenged our residents to take the Green Challenge. We challenged them to Buy Local. We challenged them to have a home energy audit done and to come out on one of two weeks per year to help clean our public spaces. We implemented a new garbage and recycling pickup plan with automated trucks that enabled us to substantially reduce our work force through attrition and reassignments without layoffs. Our residents were so impressed with the new service that we turned a five-year implementation plan into two years to meet the demand from our residents whose only complaint was “When am I going to get the new cans?” Our recycling percentages went up dramatically.

We solicited proposals for an energy aggregation plan that overcame a rough start but that now just went through its first renewal process, nearly seamlessly. Opt-ins now outnumber opt-outs and every single resident that joined saved money in the first year. A new option was selected that used mostly renewable energy sources to make us the first in New Jersey to offer this strategy to our residents.

We did not do everything on the list of items that could have gotten us points. We picked what we wanted. We could have passed an ordinance limiting times for residents to water their lawns but thought this was overreaching. We did not adopt an extreme temperature event plan or a community wildfire protection plan or various other suggestions that just did not fit the character of our municipality – although if we were ten points short of first place, we might have reconsidered.

There is a huge benefit to our Township from Sustainable Jersey that is tough to measure. We have quite simply become branded as the top environmentally friendly town in New Jersey. That matters to people. It matters to our residents, many of whom will randomly thank me for the effort. They will congratulate me on doing things that I did not know we did or that I do not understand but what is important is that they know we did something that they understood and liked.

It matters to our businesses who are proud to be in Woodbridge. It matters to businesses who are looking for a place to locate and choose Woodbridge. Prospective businesses will come to meet with us and brag about their LEED certifications before we even ask them because they know our reputation and they feel they will be right at home in Woodbridge.

We are not shy about touting our first-place finish and we brag in every publication, every media page and website and every piece of information we put out anywhere about the Township of Woodbridge. Everyone in town knows we are number one when it comes to the environment, if they pay even a little bit of attention to what is in front of them.

We engaged our municipal staff quite easily – the Mayor said to do it so they did it. But as I said earlier, we already had a huge head start because of the work they did and continue to do every single day. Our directors and our employees understand what it means to us because they go to conferences and conventions and talk to their peers and they talk to our residents every day. They truly know what it means to have Woodbridge as the most sustainable town in New Jersey. It has given us a level of prestige that is actually indescribable and because it is objective and not subjective, like most things in our political lives, that objectivity gives an extra layer of respectability.

And of course, I am exaggerating when I say the staff just followed orders. We have always preferred an approach of buy-in, not push-back. The best lines I hear in various staff meetings to discuss the Sustainable Jersey tasks that we will undertake are “that makes sense” or “sure we can do that” or the best one “what if we try this?” And we truly ask opinions rather than just give direction. Nobody knows better how to save on energy than the head of our Buildings and Grounds Division. Nobody knows better how to save on fuel than our Public Works Director. Our upper and mid-level managers became our partners since the very beginning and many of the ideas we have implemented have come directly from them.

We have also involved our outside entities that are unofficially connected to Woodbridge. Our schools are obviously separate from our town but our school children are a natural ally to bring their parents around to a more environmentally friendly life style. The Board of Education consulted with us before putting solar panels on 23 of their buildings. Our library system is somewhat independent, but they use their vast resources to help us in any way they can. Our Housing Authority mimics every energy program we start and our Wellness Committee understands that a healthy lifestyle is a sustainable lifestyle.

Participating in Sustainable Jersey is not hard, and it is not easy. It all depends on how far a town wants to go with it. We are fortunate to have a large and dedicated staff in Woodbridge and we can afford to let our employees take the time to document all of our efforts and fill out paperwork to participate in the program. Not all towns are as lucky. That is why the spread between small, medium and large towns is important. Other than an allocation of time, the Sustainable Jersey effort did not require a budget allocation or a specific dedication of resources that would have been noticeable to our taxpayers.

In fact, not only has the program not cost us any money, but we have achieved budgetary savings as a result of many of the actions. Every energy-efficient action like an energy audit and new light fixtures and weatherproofing of windows or a more efficient fuel source goes right to the bottom line. We spend less on energy now than when I became Mayor eleven years ago and it is not just because of price fluctuations – our energy usage is down overall because of Sustainable Jersey.

We have always had the policy of marrying the two greens – green for the environment and green for the taxpayer dollar. I would freely admit that we probably would not have implemented solar panels on our municipal buildings but for a $2 million plus State grant. The annual budgetary savings from less electricity has a payback of over 20 years that was reduced to less than five because of the grant. Sustainable Jersey has allowed us to access other grants from public and private sources that we otherwise would not have known about.

Connecticut has a terrific opportunity now to implement your own program and I strongly encourage you to do so. Starting one up is not easy just as joining the program as a town is not necessarily easy. But the long-term gain makes it worth the short-term pain. The model is there for you to follow. Look at what other states in the country have done and look at what your neighbor to the Southwest has done. Use Sustainable Jersey as your guide and in particular use Randy Solomon as your role model.

I did not run for Mayor in 2006 to save the environment. That issue did not make any of my mailers. It was not in my polls. It did not get brought up in my debates. I simply did not talk about it at all.  I never imagined what a hot button issue it really would become.

I ran on a platform of economic development and jobs, pledging to make Woodbridge vibrant again. Little did I know that when I ran for re-election, I would highlight our environmental accomplishments first and foremost and often. As I said earlier, sustainability became our brand. It became my brand. Sustainability helped me reach all of my campaign promises in both a direct and indirect way. Sustainability is good government. Good government is good politics. I am now the Environmental Mayor and very proud of it.

So, in closing, my advice to my colleagues in this room is to embrace the program. Own it. Make it yours. Lead by example. Take advantage of this program to really reach your residents to show them you care about the environment because they do. Even those who dispute that climate change is caused by humans will respect you for the efforts to make your town more greenable. Everyone likes to save natural resources, everyone likes to save money. Make Sustainable Connecticut a priority in your municipality like we did in Woodbridge and your residents will love you for it.”

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