It's an open secret that the folks at City Hall don't care much about protecting Salem's street trees. I've documented this over the years in numerous blog posts, the most notable one being "Outrage: the true story of Salem's U.S. Bank tree killings."
Peter Fernandez, the Public Works Director, was the city official who was most responsible in 2013 for the outrageous destruction of five healthy, beautiful, large downtown trees that weren't causing any problems.
But so far as I know, Fernandez didn't face any consequences for engaging in a backroom deal with the U.S. Bank president to have the trees cut down over the vociferous objection of many citizens and the city's own tree expert, along with the Shade Tree Advisory Committee.
And here we are in 2020, seven years later, with Peter Fernandez still failing to do his tree protection job. A story by Tracy Loew in today's Statesman Journal, "Salem hasn't enforced tree ordinance, costing taxpayers $107,220," tells the sorry tale.
Nine Salem property owners who have illegally trimmed or cut down city street trees over the past four years must pay $107,220 for their restoration, in addition to fines already imposed.
That includes $38,220 in restoration costs owed by lawyers Richard and Dan Gatti, who illegally topped six city-owned trees over the 2019 holiday season, essentially destroying them.
Salem public works director Peter Fernandez told the City Council he would order the retroactive restoration payments after councilors discovered he had not been enforcing a 2015 ordinance requiring them.
Fernandez said he thinks the penalties could pose a hardship for property owners.
“Appraisals for trees can run into the tens of thousands of dollars,” he said at a Feb. 10 council meeting. “We never represented to council that people would be hit up for that kind of money. So, we need to consider that.”
But some councilors said that’s not his decision to make.
“Ordinances should be enforced, period,” councilor Vanessa Nordyke said. “If people are violating ordinances and not being fined appropriately, I think that’s a concern,” she said.
Councilor Nordyke, you chose your words carefully. But I won't. It's a goddamn outrage. Not quite as outrageous as what Fernandez did in 2013, but right up there on the outrage scale.
Fernandez allowed valuable street trees to be killed by either malicious or clueless property owners without requiring that taxpayers be reimbursed for the full value of those trees, as required by a city ordinance. It's no wonder that Richard and Dan Gatti felt they could top several trees without getting a permit.
City code prohibits anyone from trimming or removing city-owned trees without a permit. It provides for fines of up to $2,000 per occurrence, and requires offenders to also spend the assessed value of the trees on tree restoration.
The lack of enforcement came to light following public outcry over the city’s response to the Gatti tree topping.
...Richard Gatti said he knew he should have obtained a permit, but believed he was saving the city money by doing the work himself.
The city fined the Gattis $3,000, and ordered them to restore the trees, most likely by planting saplings. It’s unlikely that would cost as much as the trees’ assessed value of $38,220.
As should be obvious, I'm not a fan of Peter Fernandez. I'm baffled by how he continues on as Public Works Director despite his less-than-stellar record in that job.
It's an important position. It will become even more important as city officials and the City Council complete work on a Climate Action Plan for reducing Salem's greenhouse gas emissions.
Fernandez clearly is enamored of big expensive road improvement projects. His record on making it easier to ride a bike or walk in Salem is pitiful. So the screw-ups by Fernandez when it comes to protecting trees are a warning that when it comes to protecting the environment, he hasn't demonstrated his competency in that area either.
Kudos, though, to Michael Slater and others involved with his Salem Tree Advocates group.
Slater was instrumental in bringing attention to the failure of city officials to enforce the requirement that anyone who destroys a street tree without a permit has to pay the full value of the tree. This was a great example of citizen activism holding the City of Salem to account for a bureaucratic failure.