BY JOE MARVILLI
Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) has dedicated his professional life to making New York City a better place to live. By passing landmark smoking legislation, helping the environment and making sure his district’s streets are clean, Gennaro has spent more than a decade making sure we can enjoy longer, healthier lives.
In the last 12 years, the Councilman has done more than any other to improve the quality of New York City’s air, water and land, setting the five boroughs on a more green path. While helping the City environmentally has been one of his top priorities, Gennaro has also been a good councilman for his district, supporting and improving his community.
One of Gennaro’s furthest-reaching and most significant pieces of legislation was just signed into law by Mayor Michael Bloomberg last week. That bill changed the smoking age in New York City from 18 to 21. For Gennaro, the incentive behind his multi-year push for the age increase came from a personal loss.
“My mother died of lung cancer. My father-in-law died of lung cancer. That was a real impetus for me to try to do whatever I could to help those suffering from tobacco-related illness and death,” he said. “It gave me a different insight to the destruction caused by tobacco and the profound difference I feel we had the obligation to make.”
New York is the first major city in the United States to ban the sale of cigarettes to people younger than 21. The issue drew national and international attention to the City and to Gennaro’s cause. It also represented the latest and possibly last action by this administration to prevent smoking among teens.
Even before he was on the City Council, Gennaro was involved with drafting the City’s environmental policy, spending more than a decade as a policy analyst for its environmental committee. That committee is the same one he wound up becoming the chair for after he was elected.
“It certainly was a sea change, but I was still doing the same thing in that increased capacity. I came in already knowing the institution and knowing what I would like to do in the institution,” Gennaro said. “So far, we’re up to 45 bills and before all is said and done, we should be around 50. I feel very honored and privileged that some of the bills I’ve passed and some of the work that I’ve done has national implications and has received national recognition.”
Many of the bills he authored drew from his experience on environmental policy, a subject he has pursued since arriving at SUNY Stony Brook. Gennaro said that knowing what he wanted to do from such a young age was “a gift.”
That gift has led to a bevy of accomplishments. One of the biggest and most impactful pieces of legislation he authored was the New York City Climate Protection Act, which passed in 2007. The law commits the City to a 30 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. To help move this process along, the act created a voluntary global warming emissions reduction program. It also makes the City file an annual inventory of emissions for the entire City and a yearly report describing initiatives undertaken to meet the law’s goals. Gennaro said New York is ahead of schedule to meet this deadline.
“Most greenhouse gas emission laws that you see are like goals, targets. If we get there, it’ll be nice,” he said. “We did our bill with mandates. We don’t meet them, we get sued. That was something significant about the bill, which I insisted be in there.”
Some of those additional laws to help the City reach its goal were also authored by Gennaro. Local Law 17 made the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability a permanent City agency, ensuring that it would remain dedicated to bettering New York’s environment long after its founder, Mayor Bloomberg, ends his term.
A big part of this improvement effort is to make the City’s buildings more energy-efficient. According to Gennaro, 79 percent of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. To make a dent in emission reductions, Gennaro authored Local Law 87, which mandates that buildings over a certain height must conduct energy audits.
The audits will show the building owners their energy usage, what they can do to reduce energy and how much they will wind up saving over a number of years.
“To make a major renovation, through energy savings, you’re going to get your money back in three or four years. You’d be crazy not to do it,” he said. “The City buildings have to do the retrofits if they pay back in five years or less. We didn’t force the private buildings to do that, but they’re doing it because we force them to do the math and the energy audit.”
Gennaro has also been working with the Bloomberg administration to push some of the City’s bigger institutions to invest in combined heat and power. By using this program, these structures can wind up with entities that create their own electricity and heat, taking them off the grid. This means they will still be running in case of a blackout and it will take pressure off the City’s grid. New York University’s campus and hospital are examples of this program in place.
These types of energy-saving opportunities are vast, with multiple options available for different types of structures. However, the process of finding and accessing all of these upgrades was difficult, as they were spread out through different websites and agencies. To make it easier and encourage people to look into energy-saving, Gennaro wrote a law that required the City to launch a renewable energy web portal, designed to provide owners a one-stop shopping center to study the feasibility and economic benefits of installing these systems.
“People are not going to do this Indiana Jones-type journey on how to make their house more efficient. There are all kinds of government programs out there and I believe the City has the obligation to serve it up to people,” he said.
Something else that Gennaro has looked into and tweaked to benefit New York City is the brownfield clean-up program. While the State does have a brownfield program to clean up contaminated sites, it does not recognize historic fill, which is when garbage was used to fill natural land as the City constructed roads and pavement. Since most of New York City’s brownfields are made of historic fill, Gennaro created the first municipally-run brownfields program to encourage investment from businesses who would not want to clean up these areas otherwise.
“This is 21st century environmentalism. You’re taking unhealthy environmental problems and you’re turning it into economic opportunity and community revitalization,” he said.
Gennaro’s accomplishments in the City Council have garnered the respect and appreciation of many of his fellow colleagues, who said his good nature and immense environmental knowledge made him one of Queens’ key players.
“Gennaro is a very amiable guy. He helped me and introduced me to a lot of people in the northern part of Queens,” Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) said. “He’s someone that you can depend on and he was a person of his word. I truly enjoyed serving with him.”
“Councilman Gennaro was hired by my father in the City Council a long, long time ago. He and I have been personal friends for a long, long time,” Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) said. “No one would contest the fact that he has an extraordinary amount of knowledge when it comes to environmental issues. It’s been an honor to work with him to make this a clear environment.”
Although he contributed a vast amount of laws to the City Council, Gennaro’s role was not just that of a legislator. He has also done his best to make life better for the people of his council district. During his term, he made sure to contribute funding to Queens College, where he taught for eight years, Queens Hospital Center, which he said has the best cancer-fighting equipment in the City, all of his parks and all of the district’s schools, of which he gave advanced learning technology.
Gennaro is also a big supporter of the DOE Fund, giving about $113,000 a year to the nonprofit that helps formerly homeless men and women achieve independence and self-sufficiency by getting them back in the work force.
“My district has the most presence of the DOE Fund of any council district in the City. I believe in the program,” Gennaro said. “You’ve got guys who have been jammed up in life. These are human lives. If we can give them an opportunity at real redemption, we really have an obligation to do that.”
This balancing act of being a councilman for your district and being a legislator for the City at large was one of the lessons his Deputy Chief of Staff, Costa Constantinides, will take with him as he becomes the new councilman for district 22 next year.
“He was always fighting the fights that needed fighting in our community. He was also a legislator and he always kept his eye on what that meant. He made sure that he had that balance between being a good legislator and being a good community advocate,” Constantinides said. “He talked about making sure you never lose sight of the duality of your job. That’s something I’m definitely going to continue as I enter the City Council.”
As for Gennaro’s future, the Councilman said he would want to do something that continues his environmental work. He said he admired Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s response to Superstorm Sandy and would like to be involved with the New York Storm Recovery Resources Center, which looks past the recovery and is devoted to keeping the State safe from the next storm.
“That’s going to be a consortium of New York State academic institutions, looking at how we make the State more resilient going forward,” he said. “It would be my hope, if I’m fortunate enough, to be able to be involved in that initiative. That is what I would like to do.”
Reach Joe Marvilli at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Joey788.