KEN EDWARDS CENTER — Members of the Urban Forest Task Force ripped into consultants’ reports on the health of Santa Monica’s trees Wednesday, and vowed to send their concerns on to the City Council for further review.
The reports examined a small sample of Santa Monica’s 35,000 street trees and management practices surrounding the multi-million dollar contract with West Coast Arborists (WCA), the company charged with caring for the local urban forest. The reports were in response to claims raised by a city arborist that WCA was deliberately planting defective trees and then charging to replace them. He also accused former city employees of being complicit. His charges are under review by the District Attorney’s Office.
Wednesday night was the first time that task force members had a chance to speak to the reports themselves, which had originally been presented at their meeting in April when they’d had only a few hours to review dozens of pages of documents.
They used the intervening month to go over the reports in detail.
Task force members found fault in what they considered overly-rosy conclusions in a report by HortScience, the company that looked into the condition of the trees, and challenged the methodology used to select specimens that resulted in a sample that had little to do with the overall composition of Santa Monica’s tree population.
They also took issue with a report by Management Partners for not digging deeper after discovering shoddy billing practices followed by city officials in charge of monitoring the contract with WCA.
Both reports concluded that although there were problems with the health of the trees and the consistency in the billing, the overall condition of the urban forest was fine and there were no obvious indications of fraud.
City officials have accepted the conclusions in the report and WCA has since gone ahead with normal pruning and tree care after a period of months where work stalled so that HortScience and Management Partners could finish their reports.
That didn’t sit well with Grace Phillips, chair of the task force.
“I just don’t understand that math,” she said.
The HortScience report, written by arborist James Clark, found that 30 of the 54 trees inspected were in poor or fair condition and reviewed pictures taken of severely damaged root systems, but ultimately concluded that poor-quality trees and circling and girdling roots were not pervasive problems in Santa Monica.
Roots that grow in a circular pattern can eventually lead to girdling, a condition where the roots choke the tree off at its base, killing it.
Despite the fact that more than half of the trees sampled were considered to be in poor or fair condition and that many more that had been pulled by Robin Beaudry, the city arborist who raised the concerns, showed painfully girdled roots.
“I just don’t understand how he gets from A to B,” Phillips said.
Task force members also struggled with the depth of both reports, or lack thereof.
That had more to do with the speed with which city officials reacted to the complaints by task force members, said Karen Ginsberg, director of the Community & Cultural Services Department.
Officials had to keep the cost of the report under $5,000 to avoid putting the project out to a formal bidding process, which would have taken time, Ginsberg said.
“We wanted to do this quickly,” she said. “We wouldn’t be here tonight, probably, had we gone out to bid.”
The HortScience report came in under the $5,000 mark, but the low cost translated to a relatively small sample size. Clark chose every 20th tree to examine, a method called systematic sampling.
That resulted in a mix of trees that had little to do with the variety encompassed by Santa Monica’s treescape, Phillips said, and would make it difficult to draw conclusions for the population.
Given that there was no momentum for further study beyond an analysis of billing practices by city officials, the task force members concluded they had to raise their concerns to the City Council.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Phillips said.
Although the task force was unhappy with the results of the reports, City Hall has made moves in recent months to fix problems raised by both the task force and the reports themselves.
The Public Landscape Division, which cares for the urban forest, will move to the Public Works Department under the eye of Martin Pastucha, the director. The department handles multiple large-scale contracts like that with WCA, and Pastucha himself has been responsible for street trees in other cities in which he’s worked.
Public Works is still trying to assimilate the new division. When it comes into the fold, Pastucha first plans to fill key vacancies and meet with WCA to make his expectations for their contract clear.
He would not elaborate on what that meant Wednesday night.