I'm no fan of Donald Trump's re-election campaign themes, but I do believe in law and order -- along with almost every other American.
Unfortunately, the City Manager for the City of Salem, Steve Powers, has said that he is OK with the Public Works Director (Peter Fernandez) bestowing a tree removal permit on a developer (Thomas Kay) 105 days after the trees were cut down without a permit.
Michael Slater, a strong advocate for trees in Salem, sent the following letter to Powers. Slater shared the letter on Facebook. You'll see that he made some strong arguments about why granting a tree removal permit after the developer illegally removed them is bad public policy.
This seems obvious, of course. But keep reading and you'll see that the City Manager disagreed with Slater. Here's Michael Slater's message.
MY LETTER TO STEVE POWERS ON ILLEGAL TREE REMOVALS IN WREN HEIGHTS DEVELOPMENT
Dear Mr. Powers, I am writing [to] express my frustration, once again, that the Public Works Director has failed to protect Salem’s street trees. The latest incident, as you know, is Director Fernandez’s ratification of the unlawful removal of five street trees by the developer of the Wren Heights subdevelopment.
Director Fernandez’s decision to award a street tree removal permit after the developer cut down the trees is bad public policy.
First, it rewards illegal conduct. The developer was required to obtain a street tree permit before removing any trees. This requirement was spelled out in the decision approving the developer’s land use application. And, it was not certain that the developer’s application would have been approved had he respected the process.
Secondly, it creates a dangerous precedent for the future. Director Fernandez’s action has signaled to the developer community that it is okay to ask for forgiveness rather than go through the process of seeking approval. It is also an affront to all of the developers who follow the rules.
Finally, Director Fernandez’s decision is contrary to recent decisions by SPRAB [Salem Parks and Recreation Advisory Board] and the City Council, both of which have taken action to expand protection of Salem’s street trees.
This incident follows just a few months on the revelation that the Public Works Department had not been enforcing the City’s street tree ordinance related to pruning or removing a tree without a permit.
During the Council session in which this issue was discussed, Director Fernandez made a statement to the effect that Public Works staff simply didn’t believe the Council understood its own ordinance and, rather than going back to Council, simply choose to not enforce it. This is, to say the least, a rather extraordinary sentiment for a City department director to hold.
This pattern of activity undermines the public’s trust in Director Fernandez’s ability to supervise the city’s street trees in good faith.
Of course, it may be that Director Fernandez does not have the time to give much attention to street trees in light of the fact that his portfolio includes not only the traditional scope of public works, but also drinking water, sewers, stormwater, transportation, parks, and street trees.
I ask that you relieve Director Fernandez of his responsibilities for Salem’s street trees and assign them to the City’s Urban Forester. I would also ask that you seek Council approval for the creation of an Urban Forest Commission with authority to both recommend tree policy to Council and make decisions on individual permit applications.
Finally, I ask that you begin the process of reviewing whether the public is best served by a public works department with such a broad scope or whether we would be better served by returning to a model where City parks and street trees are managed by a separate parks department.
Thank you for your consideration.
Yesterday Slater shared the response he got from City Manager Steve Powers. Amazingly, Powers considers that issuing a tree removal permit more than three months after a developer ignored a requirement to get a permit and cut them down illegally is "appropriate."
CITY MANAGER RESPONDS TO MY LETTER ON STREET TREE ENFORCEMENT
Mr. Slater, thank you for the letter regarding the street tree removal along Salem Heights Road. I believe staff’s actions, culminating in Mr. Fernandez issuing a tree removal permit, were appropriate considering SRC [Salem Revised Code], the specific property, and the circumstances. The Salem Parks and Recreation Advisory Board will determine if the permit was correct.
I disagree that there is a pattern of staff disregard for trees. Through site plan review and development conditions, the City is proactive in ensuring SRC is followed. When violations occur, action is taken. We have learned from the past, and have improved the timeliness of enforcement.
I appreciate your wish for parks and natural spaces to receive more attention. I disagree that a way of increasing attention is by creating a parks department. As you know, Salem’s resources are stretched. Needs exceed available resources. Resources that are available should, whenever possible, go into direct services and not additional organizational layers and costs.
On the bright side, it's good to see that City Councilor Vanessa Nordyke wants to do something about Public Works Director Peter Fernandez going light on those who illegally remove or damage trees in Salem.
This is a message Councilor Nordyke shared on Facebook.
It’s time to increase public oversight over City government. Here are three things I’m working on, with more to come.
First, at an upcoming City Council meeting on climate/environmental matters, I will propose the creation of an Urban Forest Commission in response to community concerns about the Public Works Department’s handling of tree issues.
Second, I’m exploring ways to create more public oversight and input into proposed development, to help us identify and objectively examine the concerns that neighbors frequently bring to City Council.
Third, as you all know, I spearheaded the performance audit of the Salem Police Department. This audit will include a public advisory group to oversee it. I tapped a professional auditor to serve on the public advisory group, in order to enhance the group’s watchdog capacity.
These plans all have one thing in common: public oversight.
We need more transparency and accountability in our city, and I cannot do this alone.
I hear and understand the frustrations about the way that government responds to challenging and unprecedented times. Tensions are high around the country, and too many are being asked to do more with less. We all must rise to the occasion.
We must recognize that social distancing and face mask rules are in place for everyone’s safety. Our schools, businesses, workers, nursing homes, parents, students, and so many others are counting on each of us to do our part to keep our COVID numbers down. So, please, wear a dang mask.
Thank you to everyone for sharing your concerns with me and demanding better.
This is how democracy works.
This is how we get better.
There’s more to come. Stay tuned!