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.


Anonymous said...

Disgusting behavior on the part of the city.

I've had more than one instance where they pulled the same stuff regarding the following...

" He informed me that I would need to submit a Public Records Act request to the City Attorney if I wanted any information."

This is a often used ploy when they simply don't want to answer simple questions.

Always in the back of my mind when I am getting the run-around is that the person I am talking to is often making $80,000 to $120,000 a year and acting like he/she not only deserves it but that the citizens need to show them respect and thanks.

Talk about an attitude of entitlement. My last call to a tree specialist for the city took about 3 weeks to be returned.
I can't imagine having a situation that required immediate attention.
Those folks behave as though cell phones don't exist, even for emergencies such as this one.

And to think they are coming begging for another $360 in parcel taxes. NO WAY!

Fight Blight said...

Yeah it is difficult to even fathom giving the City of Oakland more money to manage and spend until they get their house in order.

fed up said...

This rang so true on so many levels, concerning treatment I have received at the hands of city employees. It is so rare to encounter one who is friendly and helpful that I make it a point to acknowledge and thank them.

The callous "F-U" attitude displayed by that tree crew is outrageous and appalling. If those people worked for a private company they would be fired, or at least reprimanded, in a heartbeat. When are Oakland city employees going to understand that residents are their CLIENTS, we pay their (inflated) salaries and deserve to be given the time of day, if not much more accord? Why have Ms. Levin and Ms. Lin not responded? Is this issue not worth their valuable time? Obviously, they consider answering citizen inquiries to be tiresome, annoying and certainly beneath them. At least, it appears so, and in this business appearances are EVERYTHING.

I have to force myself to read Oakland blogs because I get so upset at being reminded daily of how my tax dollars are squandered on pay and benefits for know-nothings like these who appear to cultivate their arrogance, ignorance, insolence and non-accountability. A thorough shakedown and housecleaning of our local public sector appears to be in order. I'd love for it to happen sooner rather than later.

North Oaklander said...

I had a survey done to establish my property lines recently. My surveyor and I were talking about public right of way and how screwed up it is in this city. I mentioned what I had read on this blog about Brooke Levin not having a clue about who owns street trees in the public right of way, and he was completely appalled. His response: "No wonder this city is so screwed up, with people like that in charge how can it be any different"?

Hmmm good question. How CAN it be any different with mental midgets like this "running" things (and I use the term lightly)?

Anonymous said...

An appalling situation happend at 30th and Telegraph - two old growth Redwood trees were removed by developer Trammel Crow so they can have giant housing project (was going to be HOA, but the pulled out). The city's tree ordinances are completely weak and even the small provisions allowing public input at meaningless.

The trees are gone but the vacant lot remains - what a stupid waste.

Anonymous said...

The reason it's mismanaged is because of snoopy residents like you - let them do their job already, and plant a new tree.

BTW- the trees belong to the City, it's easy enough. If its not on private property, it's City.

Fight Blight said...


The responsibility and ownership of trees is not as straightforward as you might think. you really believe the mismanagement of City programs are caused by snoopy residents. Sounds like you want to blame the victim or at least blame those who stand up report on problems they see with our city government.