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Leadership changes underway at many environmental groups in metro Atlanta and Georgia

In the past several months, there has been a tremendous turnover in a host of environmental organizations in Atlanta and Georgia — and it’s not over yet.

The change is bringing several new faces on the scene, and at the same time, it helps shed spotlight a whole new generation of leaders.

For example, Mark Abner has recently become the state director of the Nature Conservancy. Abner, a Georgia native, has spent the better part of two decades outside the state, most recently working for the Nature Conservancy in the Washington, D.C. area.

He succeeds Shelly Lakly, who became the state director of Florida’s Nature Conservancy. Lakly had been running the Georgia operations for the past four years, succeeding long-time leader Tavia McCuean, who ran the office since 1988. (The Nature Conservancy’s Georgia office actually was opened by Rex Boner, who then went on to head the Conservation Fund, a position he continues to hold).

Just this past week, Clean Air Campaign named Tedra Cheatham as its new executive director. Cheatham has been the chief operating officer of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce helping establish a Community Improvement District.

Cheatham fills the vacancy left by Kevin Green, who was tapped by the Midtown Alliance last May to become its new president and CEO.

On the evening of Sept. 23, Trees Atlanta held a celebratory dinner in honor of Marcia Bansley, who founded the organization in 1985.

In the case of Trees Atlanta, two people were named to fill her shoes — Connie Veates and Greg Levine — as co-executive directors.

Veates is the chief operating officer responsible for development, special events, membership, communications, office management and finance.

Levine is the chief program officer who is responsible for all of Tree’s Atlanta’s programs, including NeighborWoods, the urban forestry crew, forest restoration, education and building maintenance.

It is a unique model that appears to be working since they were named to head Trees Atlanta in July.

Another emerging leader is Suzanne Burnes, who was named as the new executive director of Sustainable Atlanta, a private, nonprofit that works closely with the City of Atlanta to implement more sustainable practices in the Atlanta area.

Burnes had been assistant director of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Sustainability Division, where she managed federal grants and contracts.

A terribly sad development was the passing of Marlin Gottschalk, who was director of the Georgia DNR’s Sustainability Division. That division has since been reorganized and several of its staff members have been reassigned.

Several vacancies continue to exist.

The City of Atlanta has yet to permanently replace Mandy Mahoney as its director of the Mayor’s Sustainability Office.

Mahoney left her job in March to become director of management and strategy at the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (an organization that has had its own changes in management).

Apparently Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed would like to have a “super star” fill the sustainability position at City Hall, and so far, the mayor has not found the right person.

At the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, Ben Taube announced his departure last March as the organization’s executive director.

Taube has since become a partner in EnergyFool and a partner of Consensus Energy. he also has been senior vice president of Evaporcool, a market leader for “evaporative pre-cooling of air cooled HVAC chillers.”

Meanwhile, Michael Mills, who has worked in the corporate and nonprofit sectors, was named as SEEA’s executive director.

Currently, there’s a key vacancy at the Trust for Public Land — the one of the Georgia director. Helen Tapp, who had been serving as the head of the Georgia operations, retired earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Bob McClymonds is serving as both the acting director of TPL’s Georgia operations as well as the organization’s regional director. Also, TPL has added Doug Hattaway, who had worked for the organization in Florida, to the Georgia office.

There also are other new environmental leaders who have come on the scene in the past year or so.

Colleen Kiernan became director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter in August, 2010. Kiernan had worked for the Sierra Club from 2001 and 2006, when she left to attend Georgia Tech where she received her Masters in City and Regional Planning.

Also, Park Pride has a relatively new executive director — Margaret Gray Connelly. Before joining Park Pride less than a year ago, Connelly was vice president for programs at the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation with an emphasis on parks and green space.

Former Park Pride director, George Dusenbury, is now the City of Atlanta’s Commissioner for Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs.

Atlanta also has some environmental veterans who have led their organizations for decades. Bansley was one of those long-time environmental leaders who have provided great continuity and stability in the Atlanta region.

Another example includes Dennis Creech, who founded Southface more than 30 years ago. Southface has developed into one of the nation’s leading organizations for green building and energy efficiency.

But Southface has been preparing for the future. In July, 2010, it named Michael Halicki, a public relations executive who had worked with several environmental organizations, as the chief operating officer for Southface.

Another example of an organization preparing for the future is the Georgia Conservancy. It named Pierre Howard as its president in May 2009. But shortly thereafter, it named Allie Kelly as its senior vice president. In environmental circles, Kelly is considered to be the most likely candidate to succeed Howard when he decides to step down.

When looking at all the changes underway in metro Atlanta’s environmental community, it definitely points to a real period of transition of leadership.

An opportunity does exist for a whole new generation of leaders to work closely together and to help make Georgia and metro Atlanta leaders in environmental circles.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. SpaceyG on Twitter September 27, 2011 10:56 am

    City Hall/Reed needs to put that Harvard-educated farmer-dude who started the Wheat Street community garden in the sustainability position for Atlanta. Although he probably likes gardening and the earth and fresh air and stuff. As opposed to loving endless meetings and cubicles and City Hall politics.Report

  2. jbm September 27, 2011 2:52 pm

    This was a very interesting article. These new leaders have a great opportunity to put in place strategies and plans to overcome the significant political and economic challenges facing our state and environment. It sounds like a quality group of talented individuals that can build these organizations into high impact organizations.

    I would like to see these groups work more closely together and to build a stronger environmental coalition. A Georgia Environmental Leadership Council or even monthly lunch or meeting might be a good place to start.

    James MarlowReport


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