How Salem's city officials treat trees tells us a lot about how they treat people.
That's the main message from last night's City Council meeting, where a popular, carefully thought-out proposal for an Urban Tree Commission ran into the chainsaw of Mayor Anna Peterson and six complicit councilors.
Councilor Tom Andersen was the only one to stand up both for Salem's trees and citizenry. He ended up on the short side of a 7-1 vote to reject an Urban Tree Commission.
Today's Statesman Journal story, "Salem City Council axes Urban Tree Commission," tells part of the irritating tale.
The Salem City Council on Monday voted not to establish an Urban Tree Commission, after a public hearing and first reading of an ordinance proposing changes to the city code dealing with removal of trees on city-owned property.
The proposed ordinance included provisions for streamlining and clarifying the appeal, notification and variance processes for tree removal.
The biggest proposed change, the creation of a seven-member Urban Tree Commission, received the most support in public comments submitted to city staff. And numerous residents spoke in favor of the establishment of the commission at the council meeting.
Salem Mayor Anna Peterson opposed the establishment of the commission and made a substitute motion to amend the proposed ordinance, removing the urban tree commission and replacing it with the Salem Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
I was one of those who testified at last night's hearing.
I told Mayor Peterson and the seven city councilors that I'd read the staff report on this agenda item, along with all the emails and letters received from citizens regarding the proposed tree ordinance revisions -- a central part of which is the creation of an Urban Tree Commission that would handle appeals of street tree removals.
Thirteen individuals and organizations expressed support for an Urban Tree commission. This included six neighborhood associations in Salem, who obviously represent a lot of people.
Only one organization was opposed to an Urban Tree Commission. This was the Salem Realtors Association, who said the commission "will only serve to delay development."
Well, I told the Mayor and City Council that this is why an Urban Tree Commission is needed. Beautiful, large, healthy street trees belonging to the public shouldn't be cut down for no good reason just because someone wants to build a parking lot or whatever.
Tree removal decisions should be based on solid criteria and expert arborist advice.
At a previous council meeting, Kristin Ramstad, an Urban Forester with the State of Oregon who has 20 years of experience, testified that similar commissions in other Oregon cities provide expert advice on tree issues that often is superior to what city staff can offer -- since these volunteers frequently have more arborist knowledge.
But last night the Mayor and city councilors were told that no one, repeat, no one, on the Salem Parks and Recreation Advisory Board has any tree expertise. So it will require someone leaving the Advisory Board to allow the addition of a new member who has the sort of knowledge common on an Urban Tree Commission.
Thus there were no good reasons offered up at yesterday's City Council meeting for why the Urban Tree Commission proposal was being axed. Which is fitting, since City officials have a history of providing no good reasons for why large, healthy street trees are cut down.
This is so typical of how Mayor Peterson and her mostly right-wing city council allies operate these days. Public hearings are a sham. Public outreach is a sham. Public participation is a sham. Public testimony is a sham.
Peterson and Co. go through the motions of asking citizens what they think. In this case, a broad-based Tree Code Citizens Advisory Committee worked long and hard to come up with needed revisions to Salem's tree ordinance, Chapter 86.
Result: the committee recommended forming an Urban Tree Commission.
Then City staff held a bunch of outreach meetings with neighborhood associations and other groups where the proposed ordinance changes were explained. This included asking the public to submit comments on the revised tree ordinance.
Result: 13 individuals and organizations were in favor of an Urban Tree Commission, with only 1 organization opposed -- the Salem Realtors Association.
Then the City held a public hearing last night on the proposed revisions to the tree ordinance. A handful of people testified, 5 or 6, I believe.
Result: I recall that every person supported an Urban Tree Commission.
So then we get to the vote by Mayor Peterson and the city councilors. The first thing Peterson does is put forth a substitute motion to ax the Urban Tree Commission and substitute the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
Where did that notion come from?
So far as I know, prior to the hearing nobody except Peterson was on record as being in favor of it, nobody. Everybody who had weighed in on this had said, "We want an Urban Tree Commission."
Yet when it comes time to vote, Peterson's motion wins 7-1. So much for democracy. So much for listening to the public. So much for respecting virtually unanimous citizen input.
The Salem Realtors Association and Mayor Peterson didn't want an Urban Tree Commission. A compliant city council, with the exception of Councilor Tom Andersen, gave special interests what they wanted -- an axing of the Urban Tree Commission.
Shameful? Yes. Typical for the Mayor and City Council? Yes. Healthy for the citizens of Salem and our tree friends? NO.
While the tree was alive, I made friends with a beautiful Japanese Zelkova on State Street before it was cut down in 2013 because of a backroom deal between Peter Fernandez, the City Public Works Director, and Ryan Allbritton, the US Bank president.
The tree wouldn't be happy with what the City Council did last night. Neither am I.
Hopefully Salem citizens will remember the axing of the Urban Tree Commission when it comes time to vote in the next local election.
When city officials treat citizen input as badly as they've been treating trees, there is really good reason to say "goodbye" to them.