While Mayor Daley has been praised as one of the greenest mayors in the country, his environmental resume has some noticable holes in it. The city’s slipshod recycling programs have been hit hard, of course, and for years the mayor stood by doing nothing to pressure the coal-burning power plants on the southwest side, two of the region’s biggest polluters, to cut emissions (in contrast with his administration’s quick condemnation of the pollution plans of an out-of-state business, BP, this summer). But even some of his administration’s more thoughtful initiatives–rainwater conservation, city hall’s rooftop garden, the installation of wind turbines atop the Daley Center–are so small-scale that they’re basically just symbols of what could happen.

But it’s increasingly clear that politics are going to push the Daley administration toward ever-greener policies that extend beyond downtown demos. People across the city are bugging their aldermen about environmental issues, and aldermen don’t like to be bugged that much. And say what you will about Daley, but he’s not going to let aldermen out-green him.

This afternoon the City Council’s Energy and Environment committee met to sign off on Daley’s appointment of Suzanne Malec-McKenna as the new environment commissioner. A longtime deputy in the department, she’ll replace Sadhu Johnston, who will work out of the mayor’s office to coordinate green programs across city departments.

Approval of Malec-McKenna was never in doubt, but aldermen took the opportunity to tell her how much they’d like to see the environment department become more prominent and aggressive. Each seemed to make an appeal for new initiatives in their wards: Carrie Austin (34th) asked her to make asbestos remediation and lead poisoning prevention top priorities, while fellow south-sider Leslie Hairston (5th) said she wanted the department to work harder to find out why the 63rd Street Beach keeps getting closed for high bacteria counts. John Pope noted that his Tenth Ward, on the far southeast side, has a host of environmental problems dating to its days as the home of steel mills and other heavy industry, and asked that the environment department work more closely with the planning department to clean up brownfields and push green building.

Pope told her he wanted her to become a “very active commissioner.” “This city is no longer just about police and fire, transportation, and budget,” he said. “The department of environment is right up there.”

Second Ward alderman Bob Fioretti said he’d like to be able to make developers meet with city officials to learn about green construction. First Ward alderman Manny Flores encouraged Malec-Mckenna to go further and spearhead the creation of a long-term plan for developing a “green economy” in Chicago.

“We need a strategic plan so this isn’t done piecemeal,” he said. “We’ve got to get more business people involved in pushing a green economic agenda.”

Malec-McKenna, showing great passion as well as shrewd political skills, responded enthusiastically to just about all of the suggestions, repeatedly saying things like, “That makes a lot of sense” and “That’s absolutely imperative for the future of the city.” 

The committee’s chairman, 19th Ward alderman Virginia Rugai, appeared to be amazed by all the brainstorming and advice. “This committee has seen a change,” she said. For example, she noted that 12 years ago, “There was minimal interest in recycling–it was seen as an elitist activity. Now everyone is interested.”

It was a key point, and, unintentionally, a warning. The move to recycle was actually started in the late 1980s by Harold Washington and his allies, who were forced to respond to a waste disposal crisis. But the crisis appeared to fade and with it the will to confront the serious problem of managing garbage. The result: Blue Bags.

Right now, the politics of the city are again tending green, but without ongoing pressure and oversight, these nice plans can end up getting tossed like last year’s newspaper and plastic bottles.