East Grand Forks might become the latest on a list of Minnesota cities that pledge to be more environmentally conscious.

City Council members informally considered on Oct. 8 a proposal from the city’s Water and Light Department to become a “GreenStep” city. They’re set to consider it further at a future meeting after city attorney Ron Galstad has reviewed the resolution the city would need to approve to join the program.

GreenStep Cities bills itself as a voluntary challenge, assistance and recognition program to help cities achieve sustainability and quality-of-life goals. As cities take on “best practices” -- from using LED bulbs to adopting a comprehensive land use plan that lines up with one made by a county or other “regional entity” -- they ascend a figurative set of five “steps.”

But some of those larger-scale proposals, and the way they’re worded, worry skeptics. In suburban Minneapolis this July, the Plymouth City Council backed away from the program after a series of speakers questioned how voluntary it actually is and how much some of the practices might cost taxpayers. And in nearby Crystal, Minn., skeptics of the program and climate change in general shot down that city council’s plan to join the program in 2012 over similar worries. Two years later, an outgoing faction of council members voted the city into the program over the protests of their colleagues.

Water and Light Department staff included an article from right-leaning Alpha News about the Plymouth decision in its request for council action.

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They also included a draft resolution that would authorize city staff to participate in the program and appoint Kevin Hatcher, a department employee, as the city’s program coordinator.

The resolution calls for the city to collaborate with residents and other government agencies as it plans or implements the program’s best practices, gives program staff access to a city database for technical assistance and asks the city to report on how well the program is working there. East Grand Forks would also “claim credit for having implemented and will work at its own pace toward implementing” eight of the program’s best practices, which would make it a “step two” city.

Eastside leaders seemed generally receptive to the program last week, but some worried about how -- or if -- the city would be compelled to act and how much stepping up through the program might cost.

At-large City Council member Marc DeMers characterized the program as a good marketing tool.

“We want to be able to chart our own course, but I don’t think this mandates that we do anything on any type of schedule,” he said. “Once we start talking about transportation stuff and some of the other stuff, it starts to get pretty expensive pretty fast, but ... our progression rate and how we want to do it is always under our control. At least that’s how I interpreted it.”

Council members directed Galstad to determine if that resolution would have any binding language in it.

“The next step is to approve the resolution,” said Keith Mykleseth, the water and light department’s general manager. “If you decide not to, then ... we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”

Cities reach “Step 1” when they approve a resolution to join the program, but DeMers guessed that East Grand Forks might start Step 2 because the city already does some of the program’s best practices. Hatcher sent Council members a spreadsheet that details what the city would be required to do if it aimed to advance to the program’s third step.

Those requirements include tracking monthly energy and water usage, installing “no/low cost” indoor lighting in city-owned buildings, adopting a “complete streets policy” that addresses landscaping and stormwater and preparing to “maintain public health and safety during extreme weather and climate-change-related events.”

But, if East Grand Forks leaders opt to join the program, Hatcher said the city could stand pat at Step 2.

Nearby cities Crookston, Warren, Hallock, and Mahnomen are all GreenStep members. The program boasts 129 member cities.

Should East Grand Forks become a GreenStep City?

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