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Town government launches new sustainability division, funded by anonymous donor

Brookline Reservoir. Photo by John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons
June 9, 2024

The town has created a new sustainability division within its Department of Public Works, funding it with an unusual anonymous gift from a donor.

The division, which has been in the works for a year, will expand or reimagine jobs that previously existed in town government.

Alexandra Vecchio, Brookline’s director of parks and open space, will direct the new division. DPW plans to hire two additional staff members, an assistant director and a project manager who will also work on community relations.

In an interview, Vecchio described her role and the new division’s work as broad.

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“It’s not just focused on electrification and the mitigation side of climate. It also has an adaptation side to it as well,” Vecchio said. “It’s the whole picture.”

She and the future team will be thinking about everything from the town’s buildings to its vehicle fleets. Other areas in which it will work include stormwater management, parks and open space, and forestry.

“It’s first looking at the town processes and departments. That’s where we have the most leverage to create change, and there’s a commitment by the town to make that change,” Vecchio said.

Vecchio, who holds two degrees in environmental studies and has professional experience in climate adaptation, has worked for the town for three years. Her new job, she said, combines her dual passions for public service and climate action.

“This is such an exciting opportunity for the town, I really am honored to step in at this point in time and lead this effort,” she said.

Advocates who have pushed the town to boost its emissions reductions and other sustainability work said they’re excited about the new division and Vecchio’s appointment. The previous director of sustainability, who was based in the Planning Department, left the position a year ago.

“That we are setting up this new division is a huge win for sustainability action moving forward,” said Wendy Stahl, a full-time climate advocate and chair of the town’s Zero Emissions Advisory Board, an appointed board that makes recommendations to the town government.

“It’s taken the town a while to figure out how exactly to best organize this within Town Hall itself,” Stahl said.

Funding source raises eyebrows

Town leaders initially planned to fund the new sustainability division through Brookline’s traditional budgeting process, including using funds from a recent increase in parking meter fees.

After starting to publicly discuss plans for the new division, a “grant opportunity arose,” according to Erin Chute, the town’s commissioner of public works.

The gift, $750,000 spread out across three years, was given to the town by an anonymous family, delivered through Fidelity Charitable Group, Chute wrote in an email to Town Meeting members in May.

“It is not unusual for there to be donations of this kind,” Chute wrote. “Some large donors like to share their philanthropic goals and select priorities, whereas others like to maintain a quieter profile.”

She said that the funding comes with “no strings attached.”

“The sole requirement for accepting the funds is that they be spent on the Division and under the condition of anonymity,” Chute wrote. “There is no expectation that the division undertake any specific course of action on behalf of or at the behest of the donor.”

Charles Carey, the town administrator, said that the town has received anonymous donations before, but that this is the largest in recent memory.

The donor and the town worked to “develop the grant so we could maximize its effectiveness in achieving the shared goal of a stronger sustainability function,” Carey said.

He said that his office is “limiting the number of people aware of the donor’s identity so that there’s no possibility of alleging that decisions are being made in return for the donation.”

Some Town Meeting members and members of the town’s Advisory Committee, which makes fiscal recommendations to Town Meeting, have said they were not given enough opportunity to discuss and consider the grant.

“I think it’s an unusual way to run the government,” said Harry Friedman, a member of the Advisory Committee. “Everything else that’s funded by the town, we know where the money is coming from … This was a mystery. It seems to me that one ought to at least be curious enough to question and debate this, and perhaps run it by your finance committee before accepting. … It’s a new idea that merited more discussion than it got.”