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Baker's environmental approach: pragmatism

It's all about the big picture for the St. Petersburg mayor.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 16, 2007

[John Pendygraft | Times]
Eric Murdock, 46, commutes from downtown St. Petersburg to Gulfport using a bike lane on 1st Ave N.

ST. PETERSBURG - When Gov. Charlie Crist talks about his interest in alternative energy, he credits his old friend from Florida State University, Rick Baker.

It was Baker who led the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, which recommended the state move toward energy independence.

And it was Baker who sold Crist on the idea of alternative energy in private talks earlier this year. Now the governor has tapped the mayor of St. Petersburg as vice chairman of his so-called action team on energy and climate change.

How is it that Baker - a Republican elected without the support of traditional environmental groups, the mayor of the largest Florida city without curbside recycling - is now an environmentalist?

Critics and supporters agree Baker's environmental policies are rooted in the same pragmatism that has defined much of his six years in office.

Among his arguments: Cleaning up the waters around Tampa Bay buoys the quality of life that draws people to coastal St. Petersburg. Hybrid buses are quieter and could attract the riders needed to support mass transit. Curbside recycling is inefficient because it would take a fleet of diesel garbage trucks to pick up the additional trash.

Put another way, Baker's opinions on climate change have more to do with economic development and national security than with the kind of cataclysm foreseen in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, a movie Baker has not seen.

The environment is part of the equation. But just part.

The approach in many ways is now being copied by Crist, who is spinning Baker's beliefs onto a national stage.

"Rick is practical," said Charles Lee, who serves with Baker on the Century Commission and is senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society. "I don't think he's going to be over the top. But the fact we have people like Baker and Gov. Crist and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is all good from my standpoint. We need more allies."

A different shade

Until now, Baker's environmental programs have operated under different names.

He supported expanding and creating city parks to improve the quality of life. He added bike trails for the same reason.

"I never saw it as a environmental issue," Baker said Wednesday. "To me, it was a quality-of-life issue."

The bigger picture started to crystallize during Baker's time on the Century Commission, a 15-member group created in 2005 by the Legislature to identify long-term state issues.

Energy policy quickly emerged as the group's first emphasis, and Baker took the lead.

Some might call it political opportunism. Others say it showed leadership.

"Rick Baker stood up early, earlier than almost anybody," said Steve Seibert, former director of the Department of Community Affairs who now is executive director of the Century Commission. "He is the one that stood up and said to the governor and to others that we cannot be dependent on the production of fossil fuel from places that can turn off that spigot at any time."

Baker said the Century Commission seeped into his work back in St. Petersburg.

Based on the suggestion of neighborhood environmentalists and members of the City Council, the city recently completed an inventory of its environmental programs.

That led to more energy-efficient light bulbs in city traffic lights and an increase in hybrid-powered vehicles in the city's fleet.

In May, St. Petersburg was designated the first "Green City" by the Florida Green Building Coalition, and the city also has partnered with a not-for-profit group that cleans up the waterways around St. Petersburg.

"He absolutely had no interest in the beginning," quipped City Council member Jamie Bennett, an initial proponent of the environmental audit and the Green Cities program.

Unlikely allies

Baker heard a joke recently that for all the good he's done for the city, someone is going to scratch on his epitaph that he was the mayor who lobbied against curbside recycling.

It's one of the positions he cannot seem to get away from. But he's not running from it, either.

Baker said city officials have studied the idea several times and concluded that between the fuel to maintain a fleet of trucks and the water needed to keep the vehicles clean, the program would hurt, not help, the environment.

The mayor, similarly, has not signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement promising to limit greenhouse gas emissions. It has been signed by hundreds of mayors, including Tampa's Pam Iorio and Clearwater's Frank Hibbard.

Baker says he has not yet had a chance to review its measurements.

"I think his record is a mixed record," said Karl Nurse, an environmental activist who has often clashed with Baker's policies.

The disagreements underscore Baker's own brand of environmentalism, and where it parts with traditional groups such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.

"I have always thought of myself as an environmentalist. The trouble is when you start defining terms, people think you're over there with Al Gore," Baker said. "I don't get into the global warming discussion. There's plenty of rationale for finding alternative forms of energy without getting into the global warming debate."

The public buzz over the environment has made Baker and his critics unlikely allies these days.

"It's sort of the opposite of the Karl Rove school of life - where you demonize your enemies," said Nurse. "I think, if he wants in the tent, I think we have to open the tent."

Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or


Just how green is St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker?




Mayor's stance "Green" thumb
Water City uses less water today than it did 25 years ago
Recycling Largest city in state without curbside pickup  
Parks, recreation Expanded parks, bike trail
Energy Lower CO2 emissions
Climate Has not signed U.S Mayors Climate Protection agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions  

[Last modified August 15, 2007, 23:24:16]

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