It's an open secret to those of us who live here that the City of Salem doesn't treat our town's trees well, to put it mildly.
But I was pleasantly surprised that a highly qualified person who applied for the City's Urban Forester position saw through the bullshit of City officials during a three-day job application visit and came to the same conclusion.
You can read that person's critique below. It's devastating.
Hopefully it will wake up the City Manager (Steve Powers), the Mayor (Chuck Bennett), and city councilors to the fact that Peter Fernandez, the Public Works Director, has been doing a lousy, unethical, sleazy job and should be fired.
Yeah, I'm biased.
I wrote a tell-out report about how Fernandez engaged in a back-room deal with the bank president to have the five beautiful, healthy, large U.S. Bank trees cut down for no good reason in 2013. The photo above shows how two of the trees looked before Fernandez and Ryan Allbritton colluded on the trees' needless destruction.
And here's what Fernandez and Allbritton did to them in an outrageous display of screw you to the citizens of Salem and tree lovers everywhere.
Yet as you'll read below, Peter Fernandez and his hand-picked lackies are still running Salem's urban forestry program in a self-serving fashion that leaves Salem's trees unprotected by competence and caring.
Recently the City of Salem re-opened applications for the Urban Forester position this person applied for, apparently because they couldn't find a yes-man or yes-woman willing to look the other way while City officials trash our trees.
I learned about this from a post on the Salem Tree Advocates Facebook page, which got a number of comments, two of which (one from me) are shown in the screenshot below.
With that background, here's the impressions of a certified arborist who emailed me two days ago with the provocative message subject line, "Rotten in Denmark," and this offer -- which I unhesitatingly took him up on.
Hey Brian, I'm an arborist who spent three days in Salem (love your town, btw) to interview for the city arborist position... not at all what the brochure promised. I'd be happy to share my observations, especially how they relate to the Salem forestry dept, Peter Fernandez and Jennifer Keller and your urban canopy. Salem is in trouble.
MESSAGE FROM AN APPLICANT TO BE SALEM'S URBAN FORESTER:
The purpose of my contact is to shed light on a potential problem. My personal opinion regarding the Forestry Dept at Salem Parks & Rec/Public Works is that it doesn't exist.
THERE IS ZERO TRANSPARENCY AND EVEN LESS ACCOUNTABILITY!
The department has been hollowed out and staffed with unqualified, lazy, jaded people trying to live on the dole of municipal employment. I'm merely presenting my observations and experiences of fact.
The Manager of Parks & Rec, Jennifer Kellar, was appointed by Peter Fernandez. She has no degree in horticulture, forestry, urban forestry or parks management. She was in accounting or something like that before being drafted into service by Fernandez. Apparently no attempt was made to fill the vacancy in a competitive manner.
The Acting Urban Forester is the only forestry inspector for the department. Let's pretend Jan Staszewski were still around, that would be two inspectors.
When I worked in Brooklyn, just a little bigger than Salem with much less arable land, we had about fifteen inspectors in the field at any given time performing the normal tasks... hazardous tree inspections, responding to tree related emergencies, contractor inspection (pruning, removal, stump cutting, planting, sidewalks, various inventories, construction site monitoring, pre-construction plan review, vandalism investigation, expert testimony -- all of which I've done, incidentally).
I'm not even counting the thirty-six climbers which constitute six crews on the production side of the wall (Game of Thrones metaphor). Salem has only four, not four crews... four crew personnel. That's not even one full crew.
Before I arrived I had no trouble finding Tom Bradley, the only inspector and acting Urban Forester, in the office, apparently where he spends the bulk of his time. As I drove down from Portland the day I arrived for my day of interviews, I phoned Kellar to give her a progress report, etc.
Mr. Bradley was still in his office. I know this because Kellar got up during our conversation to close the door so she could totally trash Bradley to the prospective new department head while he was just in the next office.... classy.
Still, (1) why is this guy in the office with soooo much to be done? (2) Why is the Department Director/Manager throwing her key people under the bus? (3) How does such a blatantly unqualified person such as Kellar get such a critical position? (4) Why was her position never put out for announcement whether open/competitive or at least internal announcement (could Peter Fernandez be building a cult of personality)?
Incidentally, the next day as part of my interview-audition itinerary, I spent time first with Mr. Bradley and then stepped in to say thanks/etc. at the end of this day. He was STILL in his office doing the same thing as earlier.... performing service request inspections via Google Street View. (In fairness, it's a valid ancillary tool, but really??? see the second line of this paragraph.)
During my drive-around tour of a couple parks, I apparently offended Bradley and a horticultural supervisor. They were expertly describing the importance of the local white oaks and hypersensitive political climate that surrounded their preservation.
This is nothing new to me and seemed like a good conversation as I have a little experience in parks with high patronage and high arboricultural maintenance priorities. So I asked what were the greatest threats they faced to preserve and care for these trees. Were they biotic or abiotic???
The hort guy said that Armillaria was the primary cause of the root rot that plagued the white oaks. He mentioned injections was the only treatment. (Actually there is no way to "cure" Armillaria. It can only be managed. These include quarantine, root collar and aeration/airspading, properly sanitizing tools, injection and ultimately removal of the infected tree).
I asked if the forestry/hort departments used any non-invasive diagnostic tests to examine high priority trees such as heritage trees or trees in high target settings for the existence of the offending fungus and if the department owned any of these diagnostic tools. I specifically asked about the use of acoustic tomagraphy or even the common resistograph because of their proven efficacy.
The hort guy and Bradley bristled with thinly veiled anger when they responded defensively. No was the answer (for perspective, an analog resistograph costs a little over $2k yet the department spent almost $2k to bring me to Salem for the interview, hmmmm.....)
OK.... I tried to change the subject away from the biotic threat to the abiotic cause of white oak decline in Salem, which I knew would most likely be soil compaction and high moisture. I was correct.
Kellar, Bradley and the hort supervisor told me that the second greatest threat to these treasures were Armillaria root rot and soil compaction...... they literally said this as they turned the tour van around driving on the root plates in a stand of large white oaks in the lawn beside a path. Yeah, you heard me.
My next stop was a meet and greet luncheon with Tom Bradley, Jake Snell, Noe Marquez, Tibby Larson, Jennifer Kellar, Patricia Farrell, Peter Fernandez and Robert Chandler....
Something was off from the first contact after my initial Skype interview where they offered (without my prompting) to pay my way out and back to interview/audition.... hotel, car and flight from NYC to PDX. This is unheard of... I've had to decline second interviews in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle (yes, love the PNW) for logistical challenge reasons.
So yeah, I could see it if my last name was Shigo or even Bunyan. But this was such a flag on the play. Online resources I found were news videos of emergency trees down with the last City Forester (JS) caught on camera speaking to another city forestry employee remarking about "I reckon we're gonna be liable for this..." Really, bad form!
Then there was the white oak on the house whose root plate was cut in half because the road was built literally right up to the root flare of the tree and the cause of the failure was a mystery.... Reference back to "normal tasks" in line two of paragraph three.... or the two 100 year old sequoias removed without permit, (see "tasks"), but then there are the five US Bank removals.....
I'm an experienced professional with a couple of decades in arboriculture in both the private sector and NPO/Municipal/Urban Forestry experience to my credit.
As soon as I read the article I knew the truth behind the story. The bank manager wanted a "vista prune" down to grade, so he called Peter Fernandez. What did people think was going to happen if tree pits are installed in the sidewalk at construction (see "tasks") and those big green things are stuck where they're designed to be???
From the photos, I couldn't see any sort of defect and Google Streets showed these trees needed nothing more than pruning (see, time and place for all tools!). But then they send out a pack of slack-jawed mouth-breathing hacks to do the removals in a JLG/cherry picker??? The only thing missing were red ball caps! This offended me on many levels. So yes, I had Pete's number before I packed a bag.
I'm going to stop there... I love the PNW and would give an organ to live and work there. Salem is outstanding and worth fighting for. I live in New York. I know corruption, I see it every day. Salem still has a chance to fix its issues. I give you this information for you to use or not use.
Peter Fernandez says that there is no way to cause the roughly eight different neighborhood groups to cooperate with city codes regarding trees, but rather he could only encourage neighborhood cooperation by "pandering". I took this to mean that he wanted cart blanche to exploit the urban forestry program without consequence for his own agenda.
That's why, under the highly experienced and professional leadership of Jennifer Kellar, you have no department at all. There is no tree ordinance, just some rules in the city codes...this isn't a tree ordinance. No inspections seem to be getting done because un-permited removals, etc happen regularly.
There seems to be no foresight or planning because most of the street trees are red maples. What if Salem experiences a host specific event like the asian long horned beetle infestation or dutch elm disease??? I've been an inspector on the ALB quarantine in Ohio and seen full host species removal. Everybody loses!
A large portion of the city doesn't have even 20% canopy cover, WTF??? There is no street tree inventory.... The tree census is literally an "educated guess".... There's only a partial crew, one lame, lazy inspector, no urban forester, apparently absent when he was there, and a nervous, untrained, inexperienced and unqualified leader who was gifted the job, fulfilling no qualification other than doing whatever she was told by her boss.
I don't know it for a fact that Tom Bradley is a lazy agoraphobic arborist, I just know it's true.
I don't know it for a fact that Jennifer Kellar acquired and keeps her position by assuming any position, I just know it's true.
I don't know it for a fact that Peter Fernandez is an unaccountable manipulative micro-managing weasel using the good will of the citizens of Salem for his own personal gain, I just know it's true.
Bottom line, This guy came from Miami, saw Salem as something fuckable and has been fucking it ever since. Bon chance Salem...
[Note: like me, the arborist who wrote this message is a fan of Bill Maher, who has a recurring comedic bit on his HBO Real Time show with the theme of "I don't know it for a fact, I just know it's true."]