Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 38
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
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Stimulus Seminar Draws Leaders From Around the Region

Ellen Gilbert

“The government may be throwing its money in the right place this time,” said Columbia University Earth Institute Executive Director Steven Cohen in his opening remarks at the symposium on “Sustainability and the Obama Stimulus Agenda: Engaging and Connecting with Government,” held at the Woodrow Wilson School last week.

“There is strong evidence that the government’s $800 billion commitment to good management vs. waste, as we rebuild our economy and our cities, is well-informed,” added Mr. Cohen who is also director of the M.P.A. Program in Environmental Science and Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia.

The public conference, sponsored by the Princeton University Policy Research Institute for the Region (PRIOR) and The Earth Institute of Columbia University, brought academic scholars, government officials, and representatives from the business and non-profit communities together to address key issues surrounding local government, sustainability, and related employment in the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania area.

Former N.J. Governor Jim Florio drew raves for his keynote speech. Panelist Mark Hughes, a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, commented on “the governor’s extraordinarily understanding comments,” and Columbia Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science Ester Fuchs exclaimed, “You just get better and better all the time,” as she assumed her role as chair of a panel that discussed “Local Government and Sustainability in the Region.” As for Ms. Fuchs’s accomplishments, Mr. Cohen noted in introducing her that she might be eclipsed that day by a front-page New York Times article about her father, Max Fuchs, the cantor who conducted the first Jewish religious service that was broadcast from occupied German territory in 1944.

“Longevity has some virtues,” observed Mr. Florio, noting that his 40 years of experience — he was first elected to the N.J. State Legislature in 1969 — have given him considerable perspective on energy-related issues. The goal now, he said, is “sustainable prosperity” through growth that creates jobs and revenue, and energy sources to fuel that growth that will maintain “environmental sensitivity” to “insure that growth is sustainable.”

“These are not normal times,” he observed, citing “rapid, dramatic, and complex changes” that result in “great dislocation, stress, and anxiety.” He emphasized the importance of making new policies that will address the “alienation” people feel as they “see that things are not working.” Describing “tea parties” and the current “craziness,” in response to proposed health care reforms, Mr. Florio emphasized the need to manage change and “minimize disruption.” He cited the conference that day as a good example of the effort to identify current problems.

“There is a need for all of us to be more involved,” said Mr. Florio, who was governor from 1990 to 1994 after serving 15 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was best known as the author of the Superfund legislation to clean up heavily polluted sites across the nation. He noted that global concerns, like mass migration due to the consequences of global warming, as well as local efforts, like controlling greenhouse gas emissions, need to be addressed in today’s world. New Jersey, he said, is “in the front ranks of trying to focus attention on these issues,” with Governor Corzine updating the state’s energy master plan for the first time in 17 years. He noted the state’s programs, “especially in urban areas,” for training people to fill jobs of the future.

After apologizing for his New Jersey-centric focus, Mr. Florio concluded by saying that with the “well being and health of the nation at stake, the President is very much on target.”

Ms. Fuchs began her panel by noting how “local and state governments stepped in” when the Federal government, under the last administration, “dropped the ball. Mayors across the country are thinking about linking things like transportation and sustainability.”

“I thought the conference was informational and inspiring,” said Princeton Township Committee member Liz Lempert who attended the event along with Township Mayor Bernie Miller. “This is an exciting time for governments like Princeton Township that are working towards sustainability,” she added. “Several speakers made the important point that today’s difficult economic times make sustainability initiatives like energy efficiency even more critical because of the money they save. Hearing what other communities are doing is always useful, and I came away with a lot of great ideas.”

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