Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Oakland Tree Services Program and No Parking Signs--Can They Get It Right?

As we have reported before, the Oakland Tree Services Program, which is headed by Brooke Levin, Assistant Public Works Director is poorly  managed and in a bit of disarray. We are highlighting an experience one of our readers had with Public Works over the attempted removal of trees on 65th Street in North Oakland.

When the Tree Services Program comes out to the neighborhoods to either trim, cut down, or evaluate a tree it places "No Parking" signs at the location where it will be working to ensure they have adequate and safe access. Fair enough. However, the manner in which the Tree Services Program has been using the signs and the signs themselves are highly problematic.  The signs say "Tow Away No Parking This Block", provides a space to hand write information and then at the bottom says "Sec. 57 O.T.C. For Towed Car Call 238-3021".

The problem with this sign is that it is outdated. If you attempt to find Section 57 of the Oakland Traffic Code, you will find that it no longer exists, having been replaced and then repealed. According to documents obtained from the City by a Public Records Act request, the Prior Traffic Code Table shows that Section 57 was amended by Ordinance 8610 C.M.S on 7-11-72 and then was Repealed by 12607. Review of the Prior Traffic Code and other Oakland Ordinances posted online lead to a dead-end. Frustratingly, there is little ability to determine what is the applicable City ordinance that regulates this issue.

If the Public Works Department is using outdated "No Parking" signs that reference an Oakland Traffic Code that no longer exists, it places the City in a position of liability. If the Public Works Department, through the Oakland Police Department, attempts to enforce the "No Parking" signage and tows a vehicle that it believes is illegally parked, but does so using outdated signs, the City would be liable and would be forced to compensate those whose cars have been improperly towed. Why on earth would the Public Works Department continue to use outdated paper "No Parking" signs? Are they trying to save money? Or do they just not know that the Ordinance was changed years ago?

The other issue with the signage is that the Public Works Department fails to provide any contact information such as a phone number and a specific person for those who want more information on the tree removals or tree trimming.

Why would the Public Works Department fail to provide any contact information except for the Police Records Department to retrieve a towed vehicle? It appears the Tree Services Program does not want to interact with the public and address public inquiries about the removal or trimming of trees. In this case, the signage was posted on 65th Street in North Oakland late in the day on May 17, 2010 with tree removals slated early the next morning on May 18, 2010. There was no contact information, or any information for that matter, to inform concerned neighbors that tree removals were to occur under the direction of the Tree Services Program. It appears that the Tree Services Program wants to come in under the radar, remove trees on a stealth basis, and get out without any effort to inform affected residents. No public noticing occurred as required under the tree ordinance. This was compounded by the posting of "No Parking" signs. This does not appear to be a very transparent City department under the direction of Brooke Levin. If the trees are removed without informing the public there is little to no remedy to get a felled tree back. Is this how Ms. Levin is directing her staff ?

After Brooke Levin, Deputy Public Works Director, and Margaret Lin, Deputy City Administrator, were informed of the problems with the "No Parking" signage by our reader, We Fight Blight noticed the old signage still being used in Rockridge. You gotta be kidding us? Are Oakland Executive Staff so hard-headed they cannot take constructive criticism from our reader and respond to the identified problem? Can they not get it right? Isn't that how government is supposed to work?

The question we have is that now that Brooke Levin and Margaret Lin have been personally informed of the problems with the signage by our reader and publicly informed through this Blog, are you two going to actually right the ship? Accountability and responsibility of public servants, especially Executive Management, is a key part of restoring the public's faith in local government. This is particularly important given the high salaries each of you draw from public tax dollars.

Ms. Levin and Ms. Lin any response here?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

NIc Nak Redux: Just Say NO to Desley Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan

We thought readers who wanted a break from the mismanagement of the Oakland Tree Services Program, would like to hear a quick update on the Nic Nak. After a long and contentious public process that resulted in the approval of a convenience store, but the denial of alcohol sales at the Nic Nak, the owners of the Nic Nak seem to have lost steam. Their convenience store is open erratically, but mostly shuttered, fenced off and closed with little to no interaction with the neighborhood and community. From time to time someone will sell watermelons from the parking lot. Signs on the property still advertise the sale of alcohol, even though it is prohibited. Surprisingly, several days ago the billboard on the property was removed. Apparently, the Pannells have yet to sue the City as threatened at the public hearings and encouraged by Councilmember Desley Brooks. Most likely, they have not done so because their legal case has little merit. Just as Councilmembers Desley Brooks' and Rebecca Kaplan's support of the Nic Nak had little merit.

The supporters of the Nic Nak, such as Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan, were adamant that the owners were good, law abiding citizens, who ran a clean business. There is no doubt the site is well-maintained and clean, free of graffiti, litter and weeds. Yet, despite their claims, the Pannells still seem to think the rules and laws do not apply to them. As a condition of operating the convenience store, the conditional use permit requires the Pannells to carry out several improvements including relocating portions of the fence, installing some landscaping, pulling the sign pole off the public right of way and removing the RV that is parked on site. The Pannells have made little effort to fully comply with the conditional use permit. So where are Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan when it comes to enforcing the terms of the Nic Nak's permit since they were such staunch supporters?

Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan suggested they would work with the Pannells and encourage them to use City programs to determine what kind of development and uses could be undertaken at the site once it became clear alcohol sales would not be approved by the City Council. It is unclear whether the City Councilmembers or the Pannells have made such efforts to date. The community would certainly be interested in a pedestrian-oriented development that takes advantage of the transportation corridors along Shattuck and Alcatraz and that had neighborhood serving uses. But not the liquor store of which Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan were staunch advocates.

What is interesting is that two of the most ardent public supporters of the Nic Nak's application to sell alcohol in an already over-saturated liquor store market, Desley Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan, are running for election. Desley Brooks is asking her constituents to return her to another term on the City Council and Rebecca Kaplan is seeking a Mayoral bid.

If you recall, Desley Brooks intentionally accused the opponents of the Nic Nak liquor sales of being racist and sending out racist emails. She did this at two separate public hearings. When called to task on this and asked to back up her inflammatory statements through a Public Records Act request, Desley Brooks stalled, stonewalled, and then failed to respond in a timely fashion.  She had to be bird-dogged by the City Attorney to comply. After threats of litigation and public exposure, she finally complied and provided some of the emails. She conveniently left out several key emails. As expected, there was no smoking gun. Desley Brookes had intentionally misled the City Council and the public with her inflammatory accusations. Some might say she lied. One term does come to mind--ethically challenged and morally bankrupt. Certainly not someone who should be returned to City Council by the voters.

As for Rebecca Kaplan, the Pannells have posted in their window a sign supporting Rebecca Kaplan for Mayor. If you recall, Councilmember Kaplan was "ensnared in a racial dispute" http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/kaplan-ensnared-in-racial-dispute/Content?oid=1737565 over the Nic Nak. Her staunch support of more liquor stores seemed to many North Oakland residents to be a quid pro quo vote swap for the support of the Oakland Black Caucus and Geoffrey Pete and a misguided effort to pander to black voters. The fact that Rebecca Kaplan has an impressive academic resume, including a BS from MIT, an MA in Urban and Environmental Policy from Tufts and a JD from Stanford Law School, did little for her in analyzing the Nic Nak fact pattern and  applying the law to the facts. Her eagerness to sell out, and her inability to see past the greedy political buy-off from Geoffrey Pete and the Oakland Black Caucus and do the right thing by denying the Nic Nak's ability to sell liquor, was shocking and revealing.  Hardly the leadership needed to steer Oakland in the right direction and certainly not mayoral fiber. Not surprising is that Geoffrey Pete has strongly endorsed Rebecca Kaplan.To this date, Rebecca Kaplan has failed to adequately explain her support of the Nic Nak Liquor Store. Just ask her campaigners why she voted to approve Nic Nak and watch them scatter.

In the upcoming election, just say no to Desley Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan. Don't be fooled by the slick packaging and glossy ideas.

Rebecca Kaplan and Desley Brooks are hardly the type of leaders Oakland needs..

Monday, September 6, 2010

City of Oakland Tree Services Program Mismanaged and in Disarray

For many communities, street trees are a significant asset that make our neighborhoods more livable, provide character and increase property values. Some of the benefits of street trees include:
  • Creating safer walking environments by providing distinct edges to sidewalks
  • Shading pedestrians and protecting them from the rain, sun and heat
  • Giving interest and scale to pedestrian environments thereby encouraging walking
  • Reducing the heat of asphalt and its contributions to global warming
  • Lowering urban air temperatures and reducing energy costs to cool homes and businesses
  • Capturing and filtering rainwater and urban runoff
  • Calming traffic by framing streets
  • Providing more attractive shopping environments
  • Absorbing pollutants and emitting oxygen
  • Reducing the appearance of blight by softening hard urban edges
Oakland's name--Oak Land--derives from the oak-studded hillsides that were once logged to build communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Oakland's most prestigious neighborhoods, such as Rockridge, Claremont, and Piedmont are marked by their mature, tree-studded streets. The distinction between more affluent and less affluent neighborhoods can often be made by the presence or absence of street trees. Realtors often note the importance of street trees for residents looking to locate in Oakland.

Planting, maintaining and protecting street trees should be a priority for the City of Oakland. Yet, the Tree Services Program in the Department of Public Works, which is under the management of Brooke Levin, Assistant Public Works Director, is mismanaged and in disarray. The following is a story recounted to We Fight Blight by a frustrated resident who faced the indiscriminate chainsaw of the tree services program, unresponsive city employees and defensive city managers.

One recent evening, I got a call from my neighbor asking if I had noticed the "No Parking" signs posted on several street trees on 65th Street in North Oakland. She wanted to warn me that the trees appeared to be slated for removal at 776 and 794 65th Street. I walked outside with a flashlight and sure enough there were several "No Parking" signs that had apparently appeared very late in the day. None of the nearby neighbors had any knowledge as to who posted the signs. The signs themselves gave no indication as to who would be cutting the trees down, nor was there any contact information for those who had questions. None of the neighbors, including myself, were provided any kind of advance notice either by flyer or by letter. Because one of the trees provides significant shade to my rear yard and provides a buffer from the busy street, I was very concerned. I strategically parked my car under the tree to prevent it from being cut down.

Suspecting it was PGE, which had recently come through and trimmed the trees to protect the power lines, I awoke the next morning and was on the phone at 7:00 am. After approximately 40 minutes of calls to PGE, I was able to reach the PGE area arborist, who assured me the trees were not targeted by PGE for removal. In fact, the PGE arborist confirmed PGE had already trimmed the trees in question and they had not found any cause to remove the trees as they posed no imminent danger to their power lines.

As the morning wore on, I looked online for the City of Oakland Tree Services Program and attempted to contact Robert Zahn, the Tree Supervisor II. When that failed because he was out of the office, I tried to contact Herbert Flores, Tree Supervisor I. Mr. Flores did not answer his phone, so I left him a message indicating it was urgent that he contact me. I made repeated calls to Mr. Flores to no avail. I also left a message with Gay Luster, Administrative Assistant I, that the matter was urgent as the trees were scheduled to be cut that day and I needed to speak to Mr. Flores.

As I systematically tried to contact anyone of authority in the Tree Services Program, I heard the rumble of a Public Works truck rolling down 65th Street which promptly stopped at 794 65th Street and began setting up to cut down the tree. Cell phone in hand, I ran down the street and informed the Public Works staffer that there had been inadequate noticing to remove the trees and that I was trying to contact his supervisor, Mr. Flores. I requested that he not cut any trees until the matter was discussed with a supervisor. I was promptly told, " I really don't care what your problem is, my job is to cut this tree down." I repeatedly requested that he stop and contact Mr. Flores. He refused and continued staging his truck and equipment to remove one of the trees on 65th Street.

At this point, I finally managed to connect with Mr. Flores, Tree Supervisor I, and informed him that their had been inadequate noticing per the city's tree ordinances and that the trees could not be cut down until the city complied with its own noticing requirements. I also informed Mr. Flores that the trees in question had nesting birds and that the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act prevented the City of Oakland from disturbing nesting birds. Although he is a supervisor, Mr. Flores was seemingly unaware of both the procedural requirements for public noticing in the city's own tree ordinances and of the requirements of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. He even asked me what sections of the tree ordinances contained the noticing requirements. I then asked Mr. Flores who owned the trees. He was unable to answer the question. I told him that ownership of the trees was critical because it governed the public noticing requirements. But he seemed oblivious and he refused to stop the tree removal despite my repeated requests saying that trees were scheduled to be removed and he would not do anything to stop their removal. By this time his crew had set up the cherry picker and had begun cutting one of the trees. I then tried to contact the Public Works Director to no avail.

I then contacted the City Administrator's Office since no other person of authority was available in Public Works. I explained my dilemma and requested of the receptionist to speak with the Assistant City Administrator. The receptionist refused. I repeatedly asked the receptionist who the Assistant City Administrator was and she repeatedly refused to tell me. She informed me that I needed to speak with Tree Services Program even though I had already told her that I could not reach anyone of authority within Public Works. I had to demand multiple times that the receptionist provide me with the name of the Assistant City Administrator, who by the way is Margaret Lin, and even threaten the receptionist with a complaint to the City Administrator before she provided me the contact information of the Assistant City Administrator.

All the while, the Public Works staff began to cut down the tree even though I was standing directly within the work zone, which was improperly screened off. The Public Works staff person began to remove the tree while in a city vehicle, operating a chainsaw, and smoking with a cigarette dangling from his lips. By this time, there were several residents who had gathered. A nearby neighbor who works for the California Department of Fish and Game approached and informed the work crew that it appeared they were violating the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act due to nesting birds. I began to photo document the removal of the tree.

Eventually, with all of the commotion the Oakland police were called in and responded to the scene .The responding officer directed the tree removal crew to stop their work and requested that Mr. Flores, Tree Supervisor I, come to the job site. Some thirty to forty minutes later, Mr. Flores showed up. After intense discussions with the Oakland police, the Public Works staff ceased their tree removal activities, packed up their truck and moved on. The Oakland Police requested the Public Works Staff leave so that further discussions on the tree removal procedures could take place with the appropriate managerial staff at the City of Oakland.

When Mr. Flores came to the job site I asked him several questions including: (1) who owns the trees; (2) what is the appropriate public noticing; (3) does the city follow the requirements of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; (4) why is the city using outdated "No Parking" signs; and (5) who conducted the tree hazards analysis to justify the removal of the trees? Mr. Flores would not answer  the questions and refused to discuss the details of the tree removals. He informed me that I would need to submit a Public Records Act request to the City Attorney if I wanted any information.

Without any  prompting, Mr. Flores walked up my driveway and began to view the tree at 776 65th Street, which is visible from the street and sidewalk. I informed him that he was trespassing on my property and requested that he and his work crew not use my property to evaluate, trim or remove the tree. I told him that it was illegal and inappropriate, unless he had the permission of the property owner, for him or his work crew to access private property. Mr. Flores shrugged his shoulders and said "We don't know where the property lines are."

The tree at 794 65th Street was partially cut and remains unbalanced. The adjacent homeowner reports that he has contacted the City Public Works multiple times to find out about the status of the tree removal and informed me the city refuses to discuss the tree removals and refuses to return his calls. While Ms. Levin and Ms. Lin did eventually meet with me to further discuss the tree removals, they have yet to answer the most basic questions: "Who owns the trees?"

This residents' frustrating experience with the Public Works Tree Services Program highlights the mismanagement of city staff and programs, and the lack of transparency and responsiveness by city management to address resident's concerns. In this case, there were many procedural and substantive failures by the Public Works Division. The question is whether two highly paid managers, Brooke Levin, Assistant Public Works Director, and Margaret Lin, Deputy City Administrator, are willing to face up to the failures and address them in ways that actually restore faith in our local government. Their current track record, which largely involves ignoring the problems, is not very impressive.

We Fight Blight will continue to deconstruct this incident and the breakdowns in an attempt to highlight just one example of how mismanaged our local government really is.