Q&A with Christine Berg: Proudly progressive Lafayette mayor jousts with oil and gas

 

She’s a fully engaged environmental activist and green-energy advocate; she’s a hard-charging, small-city mayor who is duking it out with the oil and gas industry as well as the state government over her community’s attempts to curb drilling; she’s a mom. And it all fits together pretty seamlessly if you’re Christine Berg, especially as mayor of the unapologetically progressive, aggressively green Boulder County burg of Lafayette. Berg debriefs with us on the ongoing face-off over drilling in her city; her work with  Moms Clean Air Force; her recent decision to pull out of a county commission race, and more.

Colorado Politics: Already a veteran at Lafayette City Hall, you recently withdrew from the race for a seat on the Boulder County Commission citing in part your family commitments; you have two preschool-age children. Tell us a little about the challenges facing those who want to be engaged parents yet who also seek to participate in broader civic life by serving in public office — often in posts that provide little or no compensation.

Christine Berg: As I’m answering these questions, I’m feeding my two daughters, Lumina who is 11 months and Sunniva who is 4 years old. I gave birth to both of my children since being elected to city council six years ago. I think I may have the distinction of being the first Colorado mayor to conduct a meeting while nursing! My daughters have accompanied me to hearings at the State Capitol, the U.S. Capitol, policy discussions and city council meetings. One of my favorite stories as mayor was when I was speaking to a group of third-graders while very pregnant. There is always surprise on their faces that I’m the mayor and a mom. One of them raised their hand and asked who would be taking care of the baby while I was doing mayor things, and the girl next to her piped up and said, “Don’t worry, her husband can take care of the baby.” While there are few of us today who are moms and electeds, that number is certainly growing as more women engage and run for office in record numbers.

However, the challenges in balancing a career, serving as an elected official and being present for family are real. Being an elected official with small children takes a committed partner, family and friends who are able to help out as needed.  It is a luxury to be able to serve because it requires a flexible schedule, and financial stability. And of course, life is always happening in the meantime.  Six months after my second daughter was born I lost my father to ALS.  These life events culminated in my withdrawal from a competitive county commissioner race. I’m certainly open to what the future may hold, if the timing is right for me and my family. The good news is that my mayor pro tem Gustavo Reyna recently jumped in the race, and he would make an excellent Boulder County commissioner.

CP: What inspired you to enter politics?

Berg: While working for (Boulder Democratic U.S. Rep.) Jared Polis in his district office, I experienced the challenges and opportunities of legislating at the federal level. The congressman is incredibly adept at understanding policy and values constituent engagement.  I also realized quite quickly that serving at the local level, where the “rubber hits the road,” was a good fit for me.  He inspired me to run, and I’m grateful for his continued support. Also being a parent is a critical component of why I serve, to ensure that they have the best future possible. It is important to me that I model to my daughters what it means to be an engaged citizen in the world.

 

Christine Berg

 

CP: You also are Colorado field director for Moms Clean Air Force, an advocacy movement affiliated with the Environmental Defense Fund. While Colorado is not the greenest state policy-wise, it has taken a number of steps over the years to beef up regulation of assorted air emissions and to move toward expanded use of alternative fuels. What next steps should our state and local governments take?

Berg: I work as the Colorado field consultant for Moms Clean Air Force, a community of moms and dads 1 million strong united against air pollution — including the urgent crisis of our changing climate — to protect our children’s health. I support moms and families to give them a voice at local, state and federal government on issues that impact their quality of life and their kids’ health here in Colorado.  We’ve testified at the EPA and State Capitol, and we meet with our federal and state leadership. Moms Clean Air Force is now turning efforts towards local communities to lead by focusing on mayors and supporting their vision and leadership to work towards renewable energy, community resiliency and pushing against a disastrous federal agenda.  These issues are at the forefront of many Colorado towns and cities, who are on the front lines of the financial and human cost of natural disasters and eroding air quality. As mayor, I will be attending the Colorado Communities Symposium at the end of the month to discuss with other local communities climate preparedness and clean energy development in Colorado.  Every city regardless of size and budget can work towards a more sustainable future. Whether it’s by starting a green business program, cutting greenhouse gas emissions or building solar gardens, it all makes a difference.  Local municipalities are leading the way across the country, particularly in Colorado.

CP: As an activist on climate change, do you ever encounter criticism of your positions on environmental issues from locals at council meetings or when you’re out in the community serving in your capacity as mayor? Is Lafayette pretty much where you are on those issues?

Berg: I’ve been elected twice by the citizens of Lafayette, and three times by council to serve as mayor.  Whenever I am up for election, I knock on thousands of doors to find out what is on people’s minds, and how they see the future of Lafayette.  I work diligently to engage our citizens to advise me on the policy decisions we make on council. Lafayette is progressive politically, and people live here because they love the community, outdoor lifestyle, commitment to protecting the environment, public art and history. Lafayette as a community prides itself on its sustainability initiatives. We have more per-capita solar than nearly any other city in Colorado. With a citizen-driven energy sustainability advisory board, we are working on our greenhouse gas emissions inventory, and on our goal of 100% renewable energy for community-wide electricity consumption by 2030. We are a part of the Compact of Colorado and Colorado Communities for Climate Action.  There is no doubt that people in our state are engaging on these issues at the local level because the federal government is no longer an active player in moving us forward on the Paris Climate Agreement, and as we’ve seen, continues to erode environmental protections that protect our health and safety.

We pride ourselves in this community on an excellent quality of life, great schools and progressive sustainability policies.  None of this matters if you have an oil and gas well in your backyard or near your kid’s elementary school.  People feel powerless, that the system is rigged and that we have no recourse.  We need local control over oil and gas extraction …

CP: In November, you and your City Council approved a six-month moratorium on new oil and gas drilling within Lafayette pending a city review and possible rewrite of local drilling regulations. It is the most recent development in a years-long tug-of-war between local governments and the state over what the state, and so far, most courts, contend is the state’s exclusive regulator authority over drilling. Local bans, including one passed a few years ago by Lafayette voters, have been struck down. Where is this all headed and how will it ultimately be resolved? Should current state law on the subject be scrapped? Is Lafayette’s new moratorium in compliance with the law, or will it face a legal challenge?

Berg: Like many cities on the Front Range, we are also battling the encroachment of oil and gas extraction near our homes and schools. The citizens are engaged and understand that we are their last resort until there is a major shift in leadership at the state level. We as a community have been left to fight this on our own as state and federal regulations fail to protect us from a highly industrial activity that impacts air quality and the safety of Colorado residents. We pride ourselves in this community on an excellent quality of life, great schools and progressive sustainability policies.  None of this matters if you have an oil and gas well in your backyard or near your kid’s elementary school.  People feel powerless, that the system is rigged and that we have no recourse.  We need local control over oil and gas extraction as we currently have for every other industrial activity in our city’s borders, and for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Committee to hold public safety and health over corporate profits.

We currently have a six-month moratorium to seek legal counsel and revise our regulations in light of the recent explosions and spills that continue to shake people’s confidence in the regulatory structure and safety practices of the oil and gas industry. So far it has not been challenged in court, nor should it be.

CP: What’s the most fulfilling thing about serving in elected office? What’s the most frustrating?

Berg: Being the mayor of Lafayette has been and continues to be an incredible honor, and people who live here truly love their community. I enjoy collaborating strategically on a regional level on issues including transportation, human services and affordability.  We recently purchased 23 acres of land in Lafayette where we will partner with the Boulder County Housing Authority to build hundreds of affordable housing units.

What is most frustrating at the moment as a local elected is the lack of state oversight over oil and gas extraction, and not having the power at the local level to adequately address citizens’ concerns.

CP: What are the best things about living in Lafayette that distinguish it from other communities? What are its biggest challenges?

Berg: Lafayette, like many Front Range communities, is going through a growth phase, and the lack of affordable housing is causing many of our residents to find housing elsewhere.  The heart and soul of Lafayette is our diversity, and we are doing our best to provide support and resources so our citizens of all ages stay here and thrive.

Lafayette is an old mining town founded by Mary Miller in 1889 after coal was discovered on her property. She was likely the only woman in the country at that time to be the president of her own bank. We are proud of our humble beginnings, and perhaps its suitable that our town, founded by a woman, currently has six women serving on city council. Lafayette is known for its vibrant public art program and alley art. You can walk down any street in Old Town and see all forms of art, and the advent of a burgeoning downtown dining scene. Our motto is creative, diverse and eclectic; after all we are home to the largest Oatmeal Festival in the country! We have terrific access to open space, trails and a commitment to a healthy, active lifestyle for all. It is a joy and privilege to raise my family here as part of a larger connected community.

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