Dancin' With the Czars

Cleveland's chief of sustainability is short on sustainability experience

Every big city has a sustainability czar these days. Nashville's guru of growth is an environmental law and justice expert. In Indianapolis, all things environmental are headed by a veteran conservation engineer. Cleveland's former sustainability chief, Andrew Watterson, has a background in environmental economics and green construction.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Watterson left his city post last year, Mayor Frank Jackson's administration conducted a national search for his replacement. They ended up promoting Jenita McGowan to the $85,000-a-year job, a significant raise from the $58,000 she was making under Watterson since 2010.

McGowan's sustainability credentials, however, cast doubt over the merit of her promotion.

She brings to the table an extensive dance portfolio, including work with the Cleveland troupe Dancing Wheels. After receiving degrees in journalism and fine arts from Kent State, McGowan went on to get a master's in nonprofit management from Case Western Reserve. It's the management prowess that struck a chord with the mayor, says Chief of Staff Ken Silliman.

"All those [environmental] degrees and education are helpful, and several other candidates had those degrees and education. But what's more important is your ability to manage an operation," Silliman says.

And the new chief of sustainability has a lot to manage. Not only does McGowan oversee the city's Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative — which tackles renewable and advanced energy solutions, clean water issues, zero waste, and green space creation, in addition to local sourcing of food — but she serves as a consultant to all city departments to ensure they achieve their energy conservation and fuel-consumption goals. She also oversees the city's Complete Streets program, which dictates that all street construction projects be developed to enhance bus, bike, and pedestrian traffic.

"We have a guy who advises Jenita on energy matters who has those qualifications," Silliman says. "She has the ability to work with technical people. She is not, by training, a technical person, but she is a fine manager of projects."

Silliman notes that McGowan acquired her passion for sustainability while holding various positions before signing on with the city. In addition to choreography and teaching dance, she has been a healthy lifestyles coordinator at Urban Community School, a 2010 census coordinator, and had a fellowship with the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition. She was also an assistant to councilman Joe Cimperman. — Maude L. Campbell

Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.