Chuck Bennett is running for Mayor of Salem. I'm sharing an email about Bennett that voters should read before they choose between him and Carole Smith, the other candidate for Mayor.
The email shows that Chuck Bennett was complicit in a shameful moment -- the needless killing in 2013 of the five large, beautiful, healthy Japanese Zelkova trees on downtown's State Street. At the time, as now, Bennett represented Ward 1, which includes the Historic District.
Yet Bennett not only did nothing to save the U.S. Bank trees from being cut down for no good reason, he actively participated in an unethical backroom deal between Peter Fernandez, the City of Salem Public Works Director, and Ryan Allbritton, the U.S. Bank president.
The whole story is in my tell-all 2014 report, "Outrage: Salem's U.S. Bank tree killings."
Download Outrage - Salem's U.S. Bank tree killings
Subtitle: The true story of how City officials and the bank president cut down five large, healthy, beautiful downtown trees for no good reason, and misled citizens about why they did it.
Remember the U.S. Bank trees? If you've lived in Salem for more than a few years, almost certainly you do. They were striking. The public records documents I paid $726.61 for included letters from out-of-state people pleading that the trees be saved, because they loved to see them when they came to Salem.
This was my favorite tree. The one closest to Commercial Street. I felt really close to that tree. This is how I ended the "Outrage" report.
On a personal note… I took this photo of the beautiful Japanese Zelkova at the corner of Commercial and State Streets after telling the tree, “I promise that I will do everything I can to save your life.”
I kept that promise. Yet the tree still was killed. I’m deeply sorry for that. Call me crazy — I’ve been called worse — but I felt a strong connection with that tree. I still do. It was a friend of mine. I know this, because I’ve got tears in my eyes as I write these final words, and I don’t cry very often. Usually just when someone or something I love touches me.
— Brian Hines
Memorial for a dead U.S. Bank tree
So, yeah, the needless destruction of the U.S. Bank trees was personal to me. I still feel sick every time I walk or drive by that part of State Street and see the small spindly replacement trees. Downtown Salem was much diminished when the mature Japanese Zelkovas were turned into stumps.
Partly because of Chuck Bennett. This is why I decided he deserved the "honor" of being the subject of the first Salem Political Snark post. What he did in 2013 should matter to voters in 2016.
Below is a February 18, 2013 email sent by U.S. Bank president Allbritton to Public Works Director Fernandez.
Keep in mind that (1) Fernandez' order to cut down the trees was issued three weeks later on March 12, 2013; (2) the Shade Tree Advisory Committee which, at that time, made expert recommendations to Fernandez about street tree removals, had already said twice that the five U.S. Bank trees should be pruned, not removed, and (3) Fernandez tells Allbritton in his reply that supposedly he has "not yet made a final decision."
Download Allbritton email to Fernandez highlighted
click to enlarge
I've highlighted the most outrageous parts of Ryan Allbritton's email to Peter Fernandez.
Lobbying behind the scenes. I spoke with several City Council members. Sure, we know this goes on at all levels of government. But City staff, such as Urban Forester Jan Staszewski, were telling me and others who were trying to save the Japanese Zelkovas that a decision to remove street trees was akin to approving an electrical permit: cut and dried, all aboveboard, nothing to see here.
Well, I've never heard of City Council members lobbying public officials to approve an electrical permit.
U.S. Bank made its formal pitch to the Shade Tree Advisory Committee to have the trees removed. Twice the committee said "prune, don't remove." After all, the trees weren't causing any problems that couldn't be fixed by pruning/trimming.
But the email I got from my public records request shows that City Council members -- including Warren Bednarz, who is running for re-election this year against Sally Cook -- had jumped into the tree removal process to lobby Fernandez to approve the bank's removal request. This should tick off the people who played by the rules and testified before the Shade Tree Advisory Commitee, figuring (correctly) this was how the City's tree ordinance said the process should go.
Bennett was even sneakier in his lobbying to have the trees removed. Chuck Bennett is a professional lobbyist. So this could explain why he told Allbritton that he didn't want to email Public Works Director Fernandez and City Manager Norris about his support for having the U.S. Bank trees removed. Paper trail!
(Of course, if Bennett had been really smart, he also would have told Allbritton not to write in an email about Bennett's desire to personally speak with Fernandez and Norris.)
Lots of people who lived and worked in Ward 1, the downtown area, were hugely upset that the trees might be killed. But instead of trying to save them, Bennett supported their removal, even indicating to bank president Allbritton that their removal was a "done deal."
Wow. No wonder citizens lose faith in City government.
As noted above, they play by the rules. They go to hearings of committees that are supposed to help decide street tree removal decisions. They present expert testimony. They expect that what they say will be seriously considered by public officials.
Yet Bennett tells Allbritton that three weeks before Fernandez has made a final decision about the trees, their removal is a "done deal." Sadly, Bennett was right. Bennett knew that behind the scenes, outside of public view, City officials had already decided that the trees were dead and gone.
Bennett and other city councilors knew about the backroom deal. Read my "Outrage" report to learn the details of the unethical deal Fernandez and Allbritton made to have the State Street trees removed three years before U.S. Bank applied for a permit to have them cut down.
Allbritton speaks of this deal, saying he made sure to let Bennett and other city councilors "know of the agreement our company verbally made with city staff three years ago." Verbally. So no paper trail. Not the way things are supposed to work at the Salem City Hall.
(But I bet this kind of crap happens a lot, especially in the Public Works Department.)
Amazingly, neither City Councilor Nanke, nor Clem, nor Clausen, nor Bednarz, nor Bennett had any misgivings about City staff (a.k.a. Peter Fernandez) making a backroom deal to have the U.S. Bank trees removed three freaking years before the bank went through the formal application process for this to happen.
By New Jersey standards, this sort of sleaze would be viewed as business-as-usual, just the way things are done. Here in Oregon, though, hopefully we have higher standards.
Picketers protesting removal of U.S. Bank trees
Voters have to decide how they feel about Chuck Bennett working to have the U.S. Bank trees cut down from behind the scenes, while many of his Ward 1 constituents were trying hard to save the trees through what they thought was a fair, open public process.
Salem Political Snark just tells it like it is. Salem citizens can take it from there.