Paula Brooks was just stepping to the podium at a government energy conference in Chicago last November when the White House called. Within minutes, the YSU alumna had accepted an invitation from President Obama to serve on a prestigious national climate change panel.
“The whole thing was a surprise to me,” said Brooks, a Franklin County Commissioner and the only Ohioan on the president’s 25-member Climate Preparedness and Resilience Task Force. “I feel honored, and a great sense of responsibility.”
The bipartisan panel met for the first time in early December, charged with creating a draft report for Obama by late summer on how the nation should deal with climate change issues. A final action plan is due by late November. “We’ve been asked to do a lot of very important work in a very short time span,” she said.
When Brooks thinks about climate change, her mind goes to infrastructure – bridges, sewer lines, power lines and culverts – that are vulnerable to the increased flooding, power outages and high winds that new weather patterns can bring. She is setting up meetings with community leaders across Ohio now, looking to gather facts and ideas for reinforcing and expanding the state’s infrastructure, preserving agriculture and addressing concerns over the safety and security of the water and food supply.
“I’ll never forget being a student at YSU when the steel mills closed in Youngstown. It was such a shock. It has taken decades for the region to turn itself around, and I applaud all the progress that has been made,” she said. “But with climate change, we have some pretty good science and we can forecast what may happen. We should be prepared.”
Brooks grew up on a family farm in East Liverpool, the first in her family to go to college. “Dad said I needed a trade,” she recalled, so she went to beauty college and then worked as a hairdresser to pay her YSU tuition.
“YSU was a real eye-opener for a farm girl like me,” she said, remembering how class projects and her work as a hair stylist put her in contact with diverse groups of people – immigrants, senior citizens and a holocaust survivor she’ll never forget. She left YSU in 1975 with a BA in political science/pre-law and a strong desire for a career in public service.
Brooks moved to Columbus where she worked in a succession of government positions for Ohio’s attorney general, and later, for Gov. Richard Celeste. Taking classes at night, she earned a law degree from Capital University, then spent several years practicing in both the public and private sector. She remains licensed in both the State of Ohio and District of Columbia and is active in the Ohio State Bar Association.
As a Franklin County Commissioner, Brooks has been a leader on environmental issues over more than a decade in public office, and as board president in 2006, she ensured adoption of one of the nation’s first county environmental sustainability resolutions. She said her proudest accomplishment was drafting a financial security resolution that has allowed the county to maintain a double-AAA bond rating. “My frugal farm roots and my education at YSU both taught me the importance of using money wisely,” she said.
Brooks and her husband, Greg Kontras, a business owner and Columbus native, are the parents of two adult children. The couple enjoys spending time with family, including her sister and fellow YSU graduate Dr. Barbara Jo Brooks Rayo, a pediatrician, and three other sisters, all living in the Columbus, Ohio area.
(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Winter 2014.)