Penny Gross serves on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, representing the Mason District. She is the longest serving member of the COG Board of Directors, and is currently the chairwoman of the Climate, Energy, and Environment Policy Committee, which is responsible for developing the region’s strategy for meeting regional greenhouse gas reduction goals.
What brought you to this region and how did you get into public service?
I got my degree in political science from the University of Oregon. At that time, there were not many women in political science. After graduation, my options were to go to the state capital and be a secretary or make my way to Washington, D.C. to be a secretary. I had the good fortunate of coming to Washington and getting a job with my home state senator—Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon—who at that time was one of the leading doves on the Vietnam War. I got my constituent grounding by serving constituents on the Hill.
I moved into Fairfax County the day I was married—Senator Morse had introduced my husband and me. We lived in Fairfax County inside the beltway. It was a convenient location to get to work on the Hill. Over time, I became PTA president, a civic association president, and got involved with volunteering at the parks.
What’s involvement with COG been like for you?
I’ve been involved with COG almost since the day I got elected. I started out as chairman of the Human Service and Public Safety Policy Committee. The following year, in 1997, I was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the COG Board of Directors. I’ve been on the board ever since, including serving as chair in 2009. It’s a wonderful experience to get to know everybody in the region, and finding out that we have more similarities than differences.
I’m proud of several things that we’ve accomplished at COG. The first is probably the formation of the Chesapeake Bay Policy Committee. In 1998, we were looking at whether [local officials] needed to have input into what was then being drafted as the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement. We were very successful, and convinced many local governments up and down the Mid-Atlantic to weigh in. The final agreement did mention and reference local governments many times.
We’ve also done a lot of work on drought. Local jurisdictions and water co-ops come together at COG to talk water quality but also water quantity. As we are growing, we need to make sure that our water is available. That's really important because, as they say, 'water is life.'
I’ve seen a lot of change over the last 20 years. Board members change because you’re appointed by your jurisdiction, but the issues that we have worked on have changed also.
What do you think is one of the region’s biggest challenges? How is the region working to address these challenges?
The biggest challenges we’ll have over the next several decades are growth and diversity. We are going to be the global center of employment, as we always have been, but more and more people are forecasted by COG to come here. We also have a much more diverse community than we’ve had. It’s not just ethnically and racially diverse, but also diverse in terms of age. We have a lot of senior citizens now. These are things we think about when doing the work of CEEPC. A lot of our older folks didn’t grow up with the environmental regulations that our children today are growing up with. So there’s a change—a shift—in how we educate people.
The region is growing. At the same time, we need to figure out how to reduce our environmental footprint. In the past, CEEPC has been very helpful in making sure that local governments understand all the good things behind the environmental initiatives. This year, [CEEPC] will be developing the next edition of our regional energy and climate action plan, covering 2017-2020. We’re always looking forward. We’ll use our experience with the action plan and our work over the past year to identify the best strategies for working toward the next greenhouse gas emissions goals in 2020. We are actually meeting our current greenhouse goals.
For residents, everybody has to find their own niche, whether that’s volunteering or educating other people in the community. When we’re talking about meeting emissions goals, consider what you’re purchasing. Are you purchasing gas guzzlers, or are you looking at vehicles that are much more efficient? I’m especially trying to increase the walkability of communities in my own district—walkability, bikeability, taking Metro, doing those things that get people out of their single occupancy vehicles.
How does Fairfax County benefit from participation at COG?
It benefits Fairfax County to be a part of the region. We learn that our differences really aren’t that great. The similarities are so much more. We learn from each other about best practices. The cooperative purchasing program at COG is a great one for the region. We also get to nurture those networks and those relationships that help a great deal. I remember having conversations with folks in Montgomery County about issues they were dealing with that we had already dealt with. You get to share best practices, you get to reassure one another that we’re all in this together and we’re all looking at moving things forward.
I think COG has been enormously successful. Fairfax County has worked with COG on the transportation piece with the Transportation Planning Board, our air is cleaner. I’m a great advocate for regionalism, and I think that has helped a great deal in Fairfax County, to get everyone together. If not on the same page, at least in the same chapter.