Marchelle Cain serves as the chief of staff and deputy assistant director for the City of Houston fleet department. Having also served as a chief of staff for a Houston City Council member, fleet management recruited Cain for her council expertise to serve in a liaison role for the department. The type of work that needed to be done was familiar to her, both from her time as a council staffer and her former experience in the private sector as a management consultant. With opportunities to manage projecs, this position provided her with a chance to make a difference, especially with sustainability.
Building Toward a More Sustainable Fleet
Cain says her favorite part of the job is working toward creating an alternative fuel-focused fleet. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is the co-chair of the Climate Mayor's Group, and recently created and approved the City of Houston's climate action plan. Mayor Turner also founded Evolve Houston, a public-private coalition that seeks to improve regional air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Greater Houston area by accelerating clean transportation through electrification.
A task force was put together to look at how city vehicles being used in neighborhoods, near schools, and out in the public can reduce emissions. For the heavy-duty fleet, they are looking to solidify a biodiesel contract by the end of 2020. They are hoping to transition to a no less than B20 biodiesel blend. On the light-duty side, the city is working on a plan to build an EV charging network.
“In 2019, fleet management worked with Rice University and the Kinder Institute providing data for a study by The Houston Solutions Lab which delivered recommendations to the city for alternative fuel strategies with electrification at the forefront. As a next step, we’ve invited consultants through our Evolve Coalition to build a strategy for a pilot implementation of department owned electric vehicles,” Cain explains.
The study is slated to conclude no later than January 2021, so the city can begin to roll out a pilot EV purchase plan for FY22.
The sustainability office is leading this movement, but they are tapping the fleet department as subject matter experts. Since they are the only ones in the city who interface with electric chargers and vehicles daily, they have an insight into best practices and will be better suited to assist putting together a policy and public EV charging infrastructure plan.
“We have had green fleet goals in the past, but we are now moving forward to codify these goals in a city ordinance," Cain says. "We have analyzed best practices within alternative fuel fleet procurement strategies implemented by other municipalities, and look forward to rolling out a green fleet procurement policy for the City of Houston before the next fiscal year. It’s now more than just a notion. The Mayor’s Evolve task force has given us extra muscle to get this done. On the heels of the recent passing of Houston’s climate action plan in collaboration with Resilient Houston our city’s resilience strategy, it’s a pretty exciting first for the oil and gas capital of the world to embrace alternative fuels and vehicle electrification.”
Preparing for the Next Complication
For every city, each year brings new challenges fleet managers must overcome. When Cain first took over in 2018, Hurricane Harvey hit, and the electric vehicle fleet is still being restored.
“We're getting to the point where we're pushing out EVs for departmental use in their own fleet that they would be responsible for, instead of just in our shared motor pool," Cain says. "It was very difficult recovering from Harvey because of the power outages. With construction delays and upgrading of EV panels, it's been difficult to get back to 100% usage of all the EVs we have. Thankfully, our local corporate partners have stepped up.”
Of course, COVID is the issue of 2020, if not the decade. Determining best practices for the department so people can perform their city duties when relying on a shared motor pool has been a priority.
“2020 seems like it’s been five years long. New information is revealed daily, and we're expected to respond just as fast. As public servants, the safety of our employees and of the services we provide for the public rests on us. We needed to corral our troops to be ready to be flexible, think outside of the box, and be willing to try different solutions. It takes a toll on staff from executive management to frontline field workers. It’s been quite difficult, but I'm proud of the job we're doing.”
Juggling Many Hats
As most fleet managers do, Cain wears a variety of hats. As council liaison, she acts as the go-between for the fleet department and city council. She is tasked with ensuring fleet has support from members regarding purchasing vehicles, service contracts, and much more. She communicates any questions or concerns between the administration and council back to the fleet department to get on the same page and make sure items get passed. She also presents any new initiatives fleet has before council committees at public committee meetings.
Cain also acts as the director of the citywide motor pool program called “fleet share.” A keyless entry motor pool, it’s comprised of about 100 vehicles across 15 different locations in the city. This program allows people who don't have a designated city vehicle or may just need to use one for quick business to check out a vehicle as they would a rental car. All they need to do is scan their badge, note how long they’ll need the vehicle for, and return it when they are done.
She acts as a public information officer, interfacing with the media, any public entities, other municipalities, corporate companies, and anyone who wishes to engage the city, in addition to working with the legal department on claims and handling all public information requests. She also handles the creation and updating of the city fleet’s continuity of operations plan.
Her favorite part of the job is acting as the vehicular sustainability lead for fleet. She works with the Office of Sustainability and the Health Department to help write policy around the purchase of sustainable alternative fuel vehicles. Together, they consult on air quality improvement initiatives, specifically around vehicular emission reduction. She oversees applying for grants for vehicle replacement as well.
Valuing Team Input
Cain believes everyone's input is 100% important. “Even if 90% of what's being said is irrelevant, if you miss that 10% nugget of information, you could be giving up a goldmine of implementation,” she says.
One of her skills that helps smooth some of the initiatives she’s working on is the ability to manage horizontally.
“There are different people in different roles for a reason. Their unique input can transform how you see things. You need people's microcosms to inform the macro decisions you're making.”
She’s happy to be including frontline workers in the city’s sustainability efforts. Even if they may not be used to sitting in front of C suite representatives, they have subject matter expertise. They are some of the only people who have been exposed to various situations, so their knowledge is valuable.
“It's great to see everyone rallying behind a single cause for an implementation," Cain says. "From our building services who are going to help us with our electric panel capacities to add EVs, to the sustainability office and health department who can run statistics on potential emissions reductions when we make these changes to working closely with the mayor's office when we're reporting in front of council. It's really a concerted effort. Having everyone at the table has been vital in making these initiatives a reality.”