Sona Kalapura Coffee: Manhattan Beach’s environmental champion
You may not know her by name, or know of her existence at all, but if you live in Manhattan Beach there is a woman tucked away on Bell Avenue who is constantly working to make life better and more sustainable for your children.
Sona Kalapura Coffee serves as the city’s environmental programs manager. Since August her arrival in 2008, she has been the force behind several cutting edge “green” policy enactments, including high-profile bans on plastic bags, smoking in public places, and polystyrene products in restaurants. She also organized two climate-related public actions, 2009’s Amazing Waving Human Tide Line and the MB2025 Forum, which took place two Saturdays ago and launched Manhattan Beach’s effort to convert entirely to renewable energy by 2015. It is no coincidence that Coffee’s tenure dovetails with Manhattan Beach’s efforts to go green.
Coffee’s job consists of three main parts: crafting environmental goals and corresponding policy ordinances, implementing programs, and conducting community outreach.
“I feel like sometimes I’ve got three different jobs out of the one position,” she said with a laugh.
Her multidisciplinary position is unusual in that it involves several city departments.
“I get calls here from people asking about green building or solar height limits and I’m able to answer them because I’ve worked on developing all those codes with each of those departments,” Coffee added. “That’s the tricky part. This position becomes kind of the clearinghouse for all of that information.”
Coffee takes her calls in a cozy office in the Department of Public Works building on Bell Avenue, just beneath Sand Dune Park. Her office is lit by a single desk lamp that emits a warm, tungsten glow against newly painted green walls. It’s an inviting contrast to the astringent fluorescent overhead lights that illuminate the rest of the building. Her position exists within Public Works, but she is essentially the point person for the city’s varied environmental undertakings.
“She’s really been a strong asset for Manhattan Beach’s environmental program for more than a handful of years,” said former mayor Portia Cohen.
Many of these programs grew out of the now-defunct Environmental Task Force, a 20-member group made up of representatives from local businesses, students, and local residents. Coffee led the group from its inception in September 2008, which worked to develop city programs for climate action, energy efficiency, water conservation, sustainable building, solid waste and recycling.
When the city entered a $27 million new waste hauling contract in 2011, Coffee helped ensure it included the strongest environmental safeguards possible, including a new emphasis on recycling encouraged by requirement that 57 percent of waste be diverted from landfills.
“[Coffee] prepared the city council to make a very intelligent decision on the waste management contract that was before us,” Cohen said.
In 2012, Coffee drafted the city’s Environmental Action Plan, which sets sustainability goals for the city. She was subsequently instrumental in helping the City Council enact tiered water and refuse rates, both of which provide financial incentive for residents to be more environmentally-mindful. She also worked with council to develop new green building standards.
Her position was new when she arrived, and Coffee has helped define it.
“We are very committed as a city to having an environmental position on staff,” said Mayor Amy Howorth. “And in that commitment we’re very fortunate to have Sona Coffee as the person. She’s been the person from the beginning.”
Coffee, who just turned 35, has a longstanding commitment to environmentalism that stems from a teenage trip to India. During a yearlong stay with her extended family in her parents’ hometown of Kerala, 13-year-old Coffee was horrified when she saw animal carcasses unabashedly hung up in meat sheds. She soon thereafter became a vegetarian and proponent of animal welfare.
Coffee was born in Statesville, North Carolina and moved to Hollywood with her family when she was 4. As an elementary school kid, Coffee used to plant trees with TreePeople in forests such as Angeles Crest. She studied water conservation at USC, where she earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees, and now lives in Long Beach.
Coffee spent five years at the Government Accountability Office in Los Angeles, but was spurred to make a career change after realizing the daunting climate change problem. “I was one of the Al Gore converts,” said Coffee in reference to Al Gore’s seminal 2007 film “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Despite her broad influence on the greening of Manhattan Beach, Coffee herself rarely takes center stage. She stood up bashfully to receive recognition when Howorth acknowledged her work at the MB2025 forum on March 29. in the Joslyn Center. Coffee’s husband, Scott, an LAPD officer, also received a quick acknowledgment from the mayor.
Coffee and her husband, Scott, an LAPD officer, are in their newlywed year, but sometimes she forgets it because of her deep commitment to her work.
“That’s the hard thing about this job, it’s not just a job for me, it’s not a 9 to 5 and you go home at the end of the day,” she said. “I believe in so many of the things we’re working on…but it definitely can be all-consuming.”
And Coffee has only begun. She recently wrote all the funding grants to purchase electric vehicle charging stations for Manhattan Beach and is currently writing the policy for future electric vehicle infrastructure and community development, which will go to council review shortly.
“It’s one thing to craft these policies and put things on the shelf,” she said. “But it doesn’t do anybody any good unless we’re implementing them and turning these ideas into action for the community.”
Coffee said her job is made easier because she knows she has community behind her.
“It’s a beach town,” she said. “Everyone really prides themselves on being able to have this beautiful ocean environment and understand that they fit into this process where we should have to take a step to protect it.”
The mayor said that Coffee’s behind-the-scenes work has been essential in helping put Manhattan Beach on the map as a city dedicated to environmentalism.
“Without Sona in that position, I don’t think Manhattan Beach would be doing the programming that we’re doing that’s so cutting edge, really,” Howorth said. “She’s a champion, but she’s also such a kind, lovely person. People just love her and what’s been so exciting is to see her grow and flourish in this position, and I think she’s done a really great job.”