Monday, April 26, 2010

Nashville Mayor adds 3 aides to make city healthier, greener

3 aides aim to make city healthier, greener By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • April 26, 2010 Mayor Karl Dean has hired three young aides focused on making Nashville a healthier, greener and even more volunteering city. One is an attorney, a French horn player and, like Dean, a Boston Red Sox fan. Another is a one-time "Nashville's Most Beautiful People" recipient and has led a radio station's outdoors program since 1997. The third is a veteran city planner who was already in charge of Dean's efforts to add bike lanes and sidewalks around Nashville. In the past month, Dean has named a director of healthy living, Toks Omishakin; a director of the new Mayor's Office of Environment and Sustainability, Chris Bowles; and a chief service officer, Laurel Creech. Each of them will be paid with federal or private grant money, not city tax dollars. But at a time when Dean has asked Metro departments to prepare for 7.5 percent budget cuts and potential job losses, he'll have to work to explain that his office isn't eating caviar while others chew chopped liver. "It's just a timing issue," said Councilman Erik Cole, an ally of the mayor. "It's a harder job to communicate that to the council and constituents. It's a difficult task for the mayor to talk about these initiatives when we're in this budget climate." Dean, who will release his budget recommendations Thursday, said he's accustomed to explaining which pools of money are eligible to pay for which jobs, services and projects. He said his administration rightly applied for grant funds that will allow the city to do more than its own tax revenues can pay for. "If we didn't do this, we'd be leaving money on the table, which I don't think is my job to do," he said Thursday. Funds fight obesity The largest pot of money comes from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which awarded Nashville $7.5 million to support public health efforts to reduce chronic disease and childhood obesity. While the Metro Health Department will administer the two-year grant, Omishakin will coordinate the work of other departments, Dean said. The work will include creating safer routes for children to walk to school, putting fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhood markets and increasing awareness about the need for motorists and cyclists to share the road. Omishakin, 33, has worked as a planner for Metro for about eight years. For more than a year he has been Dean's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, a job he'll continue to hold. In an e-mail interview — Dean's office declined to make the aides available by phone or in person — Omishakin said he was looking forward to the challenge of "creating a paradigm shift in a city this large." "We want Nashvillians to take steps towards walking and riding buses and bikes," he said. "It would be great to see families and neighborhoods throughout the city more committed to a healthier lifestyle. This paradigm shift starts with informing and educating the community at large about healthier options, but we have to continue to build the infrastructure to support this lifestyle, as well." Metro also is getting a two-year, $200,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop and implement a plan to increase volunteerism. Nashville is one of 10 "cities of service" that won the money under a program initiated last year by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As chief service officer, Creech, 35, is in charge of the volunteerism plan, which will focus on education, the environment and disaster preparedness. A student of Irish poetry and African-American studies in college, she created and ran Lightning 100's Team Green outdoor adventure program. "She's a real healthy outdoors person who knows a lot of people who are involved in a variety of efforts to make Nashville a better place to live," Dean said. Volunteers wanted Creech also has advised the mayor on environmental issues and increasing bicycle and pedestrian activity. "My goal is to create easier access and offer more selections for our community to volunteer in an area(s) that they are passionate about," she wrote. "... Having passion about the environment that surrounds Nashville and a greater sense of working together will only further improve our community's lifestyles both individually and as a whole." Bowles, 29, was an environmental attorney at Bass Berry & Sims for about two years after graduating from Vanderbilt University Law School in 2008. He co-founded and edited an environmental law and policy review at Vanderbilt. He'll be responsible for implementing the recommendations made last year by Dean's Green Ribbon Committee, as well as implementing a $6 million U.S. Department of Energy grant if Nashville wins it. Bowles' salary will be paid out of grant funds the city already has received. Bowles, who worked as a freelance musician in Wisconsin for two years after college, said he was grateful for an opportunity to "make a difference for Nashville in an area that I am passionate about." He said he wants to create a culture in which thinking green becomes second nature. "I believe that Nashville will have succeeded in its mission to become a truly green city when we also regularly ask ourselves whether the choices we make as individuals, family members, citizens and professionals will help ensure that our resources will also be available to future generations and whether those choices will enhance the quality of life in Nashville," he wrote. Dean said it was important to have someone on his staff coordinating the city's environmental work. "You've got to keep moving forward, and that's why you need somebody in this office leading that effort. The mayor's office, the strength we bring to something is, when we want to do it, it's pretty clear that's a priority of the government."

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