City Hall’s new green czar hit the ground running Tuesday as she began organizing New Haven’s brand new Department of Sustainability.
New Haven officials received almost 200 applications for the new position, said Chief Administrator Robert Smuts ’01, who was on the committee of legislators and city officials that selected Christine Eppstein-Tang for the post earlier this month. The position is entirely new and still developing, Smuts said. Eppstein-Tang has her work cut out for her as she begins crafting cross-departmental policies to make New Haven’s government and residents more energy efficient.
“The challenge of this is that it’s a new position,” Eppstein-Tang said. “I have to meet a variety of expectations and prioritize based on agendas from [Mayor John DeStefano Jr.], the chief administrative officer, and residents.”
Eppstein-Tang said she will mostly be working alone until the city applies for and receives additional federal funding for more staff. In the interim, she said, aides and interns the city hires through its regular intern program will assist her.
Smuts said Eppstein-Tang was hired because of her background in environmental public policy and sustainability issues and organizational skills, and her position is being funded by a grant the city received from federal stimulus package.
“We were looking for somebody that we would have confidence in to start up an office — someone who would be comfortable working with both people in the community and people in other parts of city government,” he said.
A native of Romania, Eppstein-Tang, 34, has lived in New Haven since summer 2009 and said she has always been interested in environmental law and public policy. She received a law degree in Romania at the Universitatea Ecologica and a master’s in environmental law from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Eppstein-Tang said she became more interested in setting public policy than practicing law. After a two-year stint as legal consultant in Romania, she returned to Washington to work for the Environmental Council of the States, where she worked with state environmental commissioners to create environmentally friendly health policies.
Between 2007 and 2009, Eppstein-Tang worked for McGuire Woods, an international law firm, in its Washington and New York offices as the vice president of corporate and social responsibility. She advised the company and other private sector firms on how to become more energy efficient. She said she chose to stop commuting to the New York office in order to work in New Haven in part because it is “sustainable to live where you work.” She said she and her husband relocated to New Haven in summer 2009 and that she had commuted to her job at McGuire Woods since the move.
Dennis Treacy, one of Eppstein-Tang’s consulting clients and vice president for environmental and corporate affairs at Smithfield Foods, said New Haven is “lucky to have [Eppstein-Tang]” because she has a strong background both in public policy and the private sector.
Melissa Goodall, assistant director of the Yale Office of Sustainability, said Eppstein-Tang’s corporate experience will also be an asset for the Elm City.
“I think it is extremely valuable to look at sustainability as a business challenge as opposed to someone who would come at it strictly from the perspective of trying to save trees and save water,” she said.
Still, Eppstein-Tang said her new work in New Haven will differ significantly from her work in the private sector, with both advantages and disadvantages. For example, at McGuire Woods she was able to advise clients on how to create more sustainable practices faster and there was less paperwork than will be involved in her new position. Now, she said, since she is not implementing someone else’s sustainability vision, she can implement her own ideas and see tangible results.
In her new position, Eppstein-Tang said she anticipated becoming the “hub for sustainability” between city departments as the person to synthesize different ideas about how the city and its residents can become more sustainable.
“It is not exclusive though — sustainability should be at every level of city government,” she said. “But I think it demonstrates that the mayor and [Smuts] are committed to a direct line of communication for sustainability whereas before there was no way to connect all lines of the city together.”
Eppstein-Tang will also work with community environmental groups, said Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar. He said Eppstein-Tang has a strong track record of working with people seeking environmental change as well as government officials. Natalie Alegre, one of the co-chairs for New Haven Environmental Justice Network, an environmental activism group, said she hopes Eppstein-Tang will devote resources to addressing community complaints about pollution and air quality as well as attend environmental groups’ meetings.
One of the first sustainability issues Eppstein-Tang will be tackling is the city’s recycling overhaul, which stalled earlier this month because of financial difficulties.