It’s a challenge to mark milestones amid the pandemic.
Our office has had some significant milestones of late. Not only did we issue a groundbreaking economy-wide Climate Action Plan in April but, in May, our founding director, Keith Reopelle retired.
County Executive Joe Parisi appointed Keith Reopelle as Director of the brand-new Office of Energy & Climate Change in the summer of 2017. Parisi also created the Council on Climate Change and then charged Keith to work with the Council to create a county-wide, economy-wide climate action plan—a framework for Dane County to lead on climate in what-was-then the absence of leadership at both the state and federal levels.
I remember meeting with Keith for coffee in the summer of 2017, shortly after Keith started at the County. He was excited about his new role and full of questions and ideas. He asked me to recommend subject matter experts for the various work groups he was creating and updated me on some of the cool stuff happening at Dane County.
From the onset, Keith’s unique combination of policy expertise and optimism were compelling. As he shared his vision I got more and more excited. Dane County’s leadership was committed to action on climate plus the landfill gas project demonstrated their willingness to innovate. Even, more, Keith said they were focused on real results—the aim was to create and execute a hugely ambitious plan. Plus Dane County had numerous stakeholder groups pushing for climate action. Key communities had already passed climate commitments. The County was big enough to matter but small enough to get things done. The County was in a position to model climate leadership, thereby inspiring other counties across the state to follow.
Listening to Keith, I was hooked. I not only joined two of his working groups, I recruited others to join as well.
This wasn’t my first interaction with Keith. Prior to joining Dane County Keith had been at Clean Wisconsin for more than 32 years, working on state and regional policy issues. I’d first met him in the 1990s when I was doing energy efficiency work and I’d had the pleasure to interact with him on and off over the years. Keith was a great collaborator—he had deep expertise yet was always open to new ideas, which made everyone feel comfortable and valued.
Keith’s collaborative style is best illustrated by our Climate Action Plan (CAP). The document integrates multiple voices and priorities, all oriented toward a common goal. There are more than 100 recommendations in the plan and if you asked him, Keith could tell you the origins of each of those recommendations—he remembers who suggested it, why it matters. The document is a massive convening of the best thinking across our county and Keith was the mastermind of that convening.
I worked directly with Keith for just six months. To be honest, I joined the Office of Energy & Climate Change in large part because of Keith—I admired what he was doing and I believed in the vision he was facilitating. When he told me about his pending retirement my first thought was panic—how would we keep all these amazing efforts moving forward without him? He said we’d be fine without him but, if you know Keith, you know he tends to be humble so that was small comfort.
Still, I didn’t want to begrudge Keith a well-deserved retirement. And as we’ve worked toward his transition I realized that Keith’s approach—which is so empowering—does mean that we will carry on. Keith successfully engaged a diverse group of stakeholders—business leaders, local governments, activists—and then he facilitated a shared vision where Dane County leads on climate change. Under the CAP we reduce emissions, improve health and economic outcomes, address social and environmental justice issues as well as the rural-urban divide, and we improve resiliency and eco-system benefits.
So, yes, it’s up to us to make that vision reality but Keith prepared us for this challenge by demonstrating just how effective we are when we work together. More, I know he’s confident that, together, as Dane County, we can do this.
Oh, and on the milestone marking? We told Keith that once gatherings are allowed again we’d have a big party for him. I know I’m not the only one who wants to thank him in person for his leadership.
Kathy is the Energy & Climate Specialist in the Dane County’s Office of Energy and Climate Change. In that role she's leading efforts to implement the Climate Action Plan. Prior to coming to Dane County, Kathy led Cool Choices and, prior to that, she led Wisconsin's Focus on Energy program.
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