By Maria Saporta
The City of Atlanta has big plans to make Atlanta more sustainable.
But those plans have been on a slow burner because of a transition in leadership in two key organizations — the City of Atlanta and a related non-profit entity.
That is about to change.
Sustainable Atlanta, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing policies and programs to improve the sustainability of our city, has just hired a new executive director.
Suzanne Burnes, a veteran in environmental circles, will become Sustainable Atlanta’s new executive director on June 1.
Burnes is assistant director of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Sustainability Division, where she has managed federal grants and contracts, and where she has led the department in developing its first Sustainable Energy Management Plan. She also has championed the division’s Partnership for a Sustainable Georgia, which has been a way to reach out to the business community.
For the past several months, Sustainable Atlanta has been without a permanent leader, although Scott Briskey has been serving as interim.
The founding executive director, Lynnette Young, left the organization in December. That same month, Townsend Bailey, the deputy executive director, left to become manager of social responsibility and sustainability for McDonald’s Corp. in Chicago.
Then in March, Mandy Mahoney, director of the City of Atlanta’s Sustainability Office, left to become director of management and strategy at the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance. Her position has not yet been filled.
Mahoney had been an architect of Mayor Kasim Reed’s aspirational sustainability plan, which had set a goal to make Atlanta one of the nation’s Top 10 most sustainable cities. The city’s ranking did go from 38 to 18 during the administration of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.
“I knew there was a lot of eagerness to have me get on board,” Burnes said in an interview. “This has been a difficult transition period.”
But Burnes said it has given Sustainable Atlanta an opportunity to reflect on how the organization can best move the city’s sustainability agenda forward.
She called Reed’s sustainability plan “an appropriately ambitious document,” and she said “it’s nice timing” that the city soon will be naming a new sustainability officer so that both entities can work together on implementing the plan.
“Sustainable Atlanta had a bit of a slowdown for a lot of reasons, but now I think the momentum is beginning to rebuild,” Burnes said.
She gave much of the credit to the organization’s board, which is headed by Scott Wicker of UPS, and includes Barry Berlin, investment manager for the Kendeda Fund, which helped launch Sustainable Atlanta.
Other board members include: Dana Hartline of Edelman, Ciannat Howett of Emory University, Na’Taki Osborne Jelks of the National Wildlife Federation, John Wells of Interface and Charles Whatley of the Atlanta Development Authority.
“Suzanne has a great technical background,” Berlin said. “We are thrilled to have her on board.”
Sustainable Atlanta also has focused on three mission areas: to help in the implementation of the city’s sustainability plan; to convene cross-sections of the Atlanta’s sustainability community; and to help measure the city’s and the region’s progress on sustainability measures.
“We had to work through some issues in the last few months,” Berlin said, adding that now the organization is working on a memo of understanding with the City of Atlanta of how they are going to work together.
David Bennett, senior policy advisor for Mayor Reed, welcomed the selection of Burnes in her new role.
“I’m very excited about her,” Bennett wrote in an email. “Sustainable Atlanta will benefit from her expertise, and she’ll be a great partner for the city.”
The city and Sustainable Atlanta also have agreed to have a close working relationship with Southface, the organization which has been promoting energy efficiency and sustainability in Atlanta for the past three decades.
“Southface will be a contractor of choice for much of the nuts and bolts,” Berlin said.
Dennis Creech, Southface’s founder and executive director, said his organization looks forward to working with both the city and Sustainable Atlanta.
“To me, the strength of Sustainable Atlanta is to harness the pretty significant resources that are in Atlanta,” Creech said. “I think the city needs a non-profit partner, especially in terms of engaging the broader community.”
He also said that the slope of Burnes’ learning curve “is going to be pretty darn flat.”
Burnes grew up in Rome, Ga., where she loved playing in the woods and developed an appreciation for the environment.
She attended Georgia Tech where she spent three years studying to become a mechanical engineer. But then she realized her real passion was in environmental policy. Burnes then transferred to Warren Wilson College in North Carolina where she received her degree in environmental studies.
Before joining the State of Georgia, Burnes worked as a consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency largely in the cleaning up of brown-fields.
Today, Burnes said she is motivated to make sure that her two young children can grow up in a city that is a healthy environment for the young and old alike.