Council questions uproot Treegate

Let’s talk about some lessons from Treegate.

Nine Canary Island Palm Trees on East Laurel Avenue were removed by a private contractor and sold for relocation outside the city.

In January, the city abruptly and without public notice paid contractors to remove nine Canary Island palm trees located on four blocks of East Laurel Avenue. When two Lompoc residents complained about the trees being removed and the visibly blighted area the removal of the trees now exposed, city staff gave a number of explanations for their removal.

The reasons given included that the trees were mistakenly planted on private property, they were removed at the request of “owners with business ventures,” and they were part of an ongoing city program to incubate trees for sale to other communities.

The differing explanations — provided in public meetings, written correspondence and newspaper reports —created enough of a hint of intrigue for one Lompoc resident to coin the incident Treegate.

When the council became aware of both the removal of the palm trees, and the sale of trees for income, a practice four council members said they knew nothing about, they requested a staff report on the sale of city trees for income. The report was presented at the City Council meeting June 19.

While some may have thought the discussion went too long, or was relatively inconsequential, for those who paid attention, it was actually an illustration of the perception this particular council has said it wants to change. Who’s in charge of the city? Elected officials or city employees conducting business largely unseen by both the public and council members and who may resist answering questions?

Workers remove trees for relocation outside the city.

As Council Member Dirk Starbuck noted, the practice of selling city trees has been “completely invisible” to both council members and the public.

But the staff report that was presented largely dodged what council members requested and focused instead on the two residents who brought the practice to the attention of council members. That’s unfortunate, as well as being non-responsive.

It’s unfortunate because such diversionary tactics can have a chilling effect on the willingness of residents to speak up or get involved in matters they care about. If city staff prepare public reports that point fingers at residents, sidestepping the information council requested in the process, fewer residents may be inclined to participate in local government.

Because the report itself was so uninformative, council members asked many questions simply to get clear answers to basic information on trees sold for income in the past and planned in the future. Much more information was disclosed from council questions about the practice of selling trees than was contained in the report supposedly intended to answer questions in the first place.

But some folks are uncomfortable with tough, probing questions, though they shouldn’t be. Pursuing clarity in the face of vague, confusing and conflicting information is not embarking on a witch hunt. It means council members are doing their job.

One has to wonder how those who were offended would react if the city descended unannounced on their block and removed all the nearby trees in one fell swoop. Asking questions and expecting clear answers might not seem so offensive.

The replacement trees, shown on the right, leave the neighborhood exposed to the nearby blight.

What got lost in the discussion was the justification for the decision to completely defoliate four blocks of one neighborhood in order to beautify another neighborhood, and whether the city really wants to market itself as an incubator nursery for other cities. After all, what’s gained by growing trees merely to uproot and sell them to buy other trees? In the end, the policy questions were referred to the city’s Beautification and Appearance Commission to ponder.

As one resident noted during public comment, the discussion demonstrated “a lack of transparency of access to the workings of government,” a lack of transparency that persisted during the hour-long attempt by council members to get unambiguous answers.

Local government should be the most transparent of all governmental bodies and participation by residents should be encouraged, not discouraged.

What one hopes city staff, and their managers, learn from Treegate is to be better prepared and produce more substantive reports for council members, and thus the public. What one hopes council members learn is to keep asking questions. Even if it makes some folks uncomfortable.

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