By David Pendered
The discussion begins Saturday about replacing the departing director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter, one of the state’s few environmental organizations that endorses political candidates, seeks to influence legislation and sway public opinion.
The future state director will guide the next phase of the organization’s 30-year history of advocacy in the political arena, Mark Woodall, vice chair of the state chapter’s executive committee, said Friday. The chapter is allowed to engage in political lobbying and campaign activities under its federal tax status, as a 501(c)(4).
Past political wins include roles in extending MARTA to Clayton County, enabling rooftop solar arrays, and endorsing John Lewis over Julian Bond in the pivotal 1986 congressional campaign.
The chapter helped defeat two major transportation proposals – a proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation projects the chapter contended would fuel urban sprawl and not pay enough for transit, which voters rejected in most areas of the state; and a proposed circular highway outside I-285 that was called the Outer Loop and was viewed as adding to urban sprawl.
Ted Terry, the Sierra Club’s former state director, resigned the position to campaign for the Democratic nomination to oppose Republican Sen. David Perdue in the 2020 campaign. Terry served three years as state director and continues to serve as mayor of Clarkston, in DeKalb County. Terry’s goodbye letter was less a look back than a call to environmental action:
- “We must all lead by example in personally reducing our carbon footprint. We must all lead by example in speaking up and out when we see people abusing their power to the detriment of our collective futures. We must all lead by example in advocating for policy changes and agitating the unengaged. We have the power – our future is literally in our hands!”
The executive committee of the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter meets Saturday and the agenda includes the task of filling the position of state director, Woodall said. The top spot isn’t the chapter’s only opening –one position manages the “Ready for 100” clean energy program; and another is the office’s administrative assistant.
Terry’s departure letter observed the hiring of a new state director could take a few months. Meanwhile, Jessica Morehead has stepped in as interim director from her job as deputy director. Morehead has been with the organization for three years, according to the letter.
Woodall said he hopes the chapter will fill the chapter director’s position with someone able to stay longer than three to five years, as has been the case for the past two state directors. That said, he observed that the state directors and other staffers who have departed have moved on to jobs where they continue to work toward implementing Sierra Club goals.
During Terry’s three years at the helm, the organization has maintained its lobbying presence at the state Capitol when other organizations have reduced or eliminated their presence. The Georgia chapter also has maintained its presence in monitoring Georgia Power rate cases and other matters before the Public Service Commission.
Woodall credited Terry and his predecessor, Colleen Kiernan, with maintaining an active political program. Kiernan’s tenure coincided with transportation funding issues and the organization had a significant influence:
- The statewide chapter opposed the transportation sales tax referendums in 2012, declaring the traffic relief the tax was to provide would actually promote traffic-inducing sprawl, and not fund enough transit. The measure failed in all but three districts;
- The vote to bring MARTA to Clayton County was championed by the Sierra Club. The organization persuaded elected officials to put the referendum on the ballot and then campaigned for its passage;
- The Atlanta BeltLine was recognized in 2012 as one of the nation’s best transportation projects by the national Sierra Club in a report titled, “Smart Choices, Less Traffic: 50 Best and Worst Transportation Projects in the United States.”
Kiernan now serves as MARTA’s senior director of government and community affairs.
Woodall observed that Brionte McCorkle contributed significantly to the effort to bring MARTA to Clayton County. McCorkle served as assistant director of the Georgia chapter at the time, going on to campaign for Atlanta City Council – narrowly missing a run-off with ultimate winner Marci Collier Overstreet – and now serving as ED of Georgia Conservation Voters.
Woodall observed that the chapter’s political activism was initiated by former chapter Chair Chuck McGrady. McGrady moved home to North Carolina after stepping down and went on to serve in the North Carolina House of Representatives. McGrady recently announced his retirement from the House.
McGrady set the chapter’s course into politics with the endorsement of Lewis over Bond for Congress; hiring Neill Herring to lobby at the state Capitol; opposing construction of a proposed highway circling Atlanta far beyond I-285, known as the Outer Loop; and getting himself elected to the board that oversees the Georgia Department of Transportation, Woodall said in an email.