CITY HALL — A City Hall employee in charge of supervising Santa Monica’s urban forest fired off a complaint to the District Attorney’s Office Monday alleging waste, fraud and abuse of public funds associated with a multi-million dollar contract with West Coast Arborists.
Robin Beaudry, who has been employed by City Hall since late 2012, said West Coast Arborists, which has been awarded $13.4 million in contracts to plant, prune and replace trees in Santa Monica since 2001, allegedly provided trees that had critical root defects and excessively and aggressively pruned them, leading to premature death.
Beaudry also said that city officials dismissed his concerns and went so far as to say that West Coast Arborists was doing shoddy work to milk the contract for additional public funds by charging to remove and replace dead trees that they provided.
The District Attorney’s Office confirmed Wednesday that they received the complaint and the matter is under review.
On the heels of the complaint, city officials released to the Daily Press Wednesday a series of reports by outside consultants that said while there is no evidence of fraud and corruption, they did find instances where trees had significant root issues or had been improperly planted and watered.
The reports also said that the monitoring of bills submitted by West Coast Arborists was inadequate, consisting of phone conversations and lacking written documentation.
“Past record keeping from (the Public Landscape Division) left a lot to be desired,” said City Manager Rod Gould. “It was somewhat casual, and we need to address that.”
The consultant, Management Partners, reviewed “quite a few” invoices, and found only one that caused concern, Gould said.
In Beaudry’s complaint, he alleges that hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funds were unaccounted for in the last year alone, and that hundreds, if not thousands, of trees are afflicted. If so, millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money could be lost.
Management Partners found nothing close to that, Gould said.
The consultant did recommend, however, that city officials should review several years of invoices from West Coast Arborists to see if they were improperly charged for any services.
If so, City Hall will seek repayment from West Coast Arborists, although that could be difficult given the lack of proper bookkeeping, Gould said.
Andy Trotter, with West Coast Arborists, sent an e-mail to the Daily Press that he is aware of Beaudry’s claims, but stands by his company’s performance and the quality of trees they provided.
“[I]ndependent experts have confirmed that the trees delivered to the city of Santa Monica were from reputable nurseries, in good condition and planted and pruned by [West Coast Arborists] in accordance with standard practices,” Trotter said. “[West Coast Arborists] continues to have a strong working relationship with the city of Santa Monica for the betterment of the local urban forest.”
Beaudry, who is on medical leave after injuring his back while trying to remove what he claims was a defective tree, said that he is coming forward out of concern for public safety and public dollars.
He believes there was collusion between West Coast Arborists and his bosses in the Public Landscape Division, two of whom have since retired, to ignore potentially deadly problems with the trees to create more work for the contractor.
“These are defects we know result in [tree] failure. Whether it be one year, two years or five years, it’s going to happen,” Beaudry said.
Beaudry said that a tree fell into the entrance of a local school because of root problems, the main one being stem girdling roots. It’s a type of dysfunctional root that is growing against a tree’s trunk. This compression may severely retard or stop the flow of nutrients. Sometimes, trees can snap off at the weak point because of the condition.
“If there were kids coming into school that day, somebody could have been killed,” he said.
Management Partners said that reviews by City Hall-contracted arborists did not indicate any unusual public safety risk from failing trees.
Gould has already made moves on one recommendation by the consultants to put the responsibility for maintaining Santa Monica’s public trees under the umbrella of the Public Works Department, which maintains roads and other infrastructure, rather than Community & Cultural Services Department, which is tasked for providing after-school programs, services for seniors and the homeless.
Gould believes employees in the Public Works Department are accustomed to dealing with contracts like that with West Coast Arborists.