I only had one request to make of the Salem Weekly editors: if you have to shorten my opinion piece about the City of Salem's outrageous approval of a US Bank request to cut down five beautiful Zelkova trees, please...
Don't take out my references to Tony Soprano and the Bada Bing Club. Pretty please. With New Jersey mobster frosting on top.
Happily, they didn't. "A promise is a promise" was published almost exactly as I wrote it. Here's the first Soprano's reference.
There was no good reason to remove the trees. None. Three times the city’s Shade Tree Committee recommended pruning them, not killing them. Salem’s urban forester agreed. So did independent arborists. Neighboring business owners wanted the five trees saved.
So why did Public Works director Peter Fernandez approve US Bank regional president Alan Allbritton’s application to have the trees removed? Here’s where the story starts to sound more like the New Jersey of Tony Soprano than supposedly squeaky-clean Salem.
Now, I want to assure Peter Fernandez and Alan Allbritton that I don't believe they are engaged in truly nefarious dealings. Some hyperbole and exaggeration is par for the course in most sorts of writing.
But mildly nefarious? Sure.
When I've described what happened here in Salem to people unacquainted with our city, the reaction has been "Wow, the tree cutting sounds so sleazy."
Peter Fernandez ignored the thrice-repeated recommendation of the Shade Tree committee. Admitting that US Bank’s sidewalk liability concerns weren’t pertinent to his decision, he conjured up some pitifully weak reasons to cut down the trees. Each reason screamed “prune” to arborists, not kill.
Then the City of Salem sent a letter to tree removal opponents notifying them of Fernandez’ approval. Outrageously, it arrived on the very day of the appeal deadline. An attorney has told me that opponents had grounds to appeal. But its damn tough to appeal a City of Salem decision when you’re notified about it too late to legally do so.
In the grand scheme of things it could be argued that cutting down healthy large trees for no good reason doesn't rank very high on the scale of Outrageous Acts.
That may be.
However, this episode is a window that provides a view into how the current leadership of the City of Salem -- mayor, city manager, department heads, councilors -- go about making public policy decisions.
How much do they value citizen testimony? To what extent do they pay attention to facts and expert advice? Do special interests have more sway than the broad public interest? Are "political" decisions made first, with reasons drummed up later?
Time will offer up better answers to these questions.
Debate over a Third Bridge and downtown parking meters is continuing, and will heat up. How the City handles these issues will tell us a lot about whether Tony Soprano-style deal-making is taking hold in Salem.