CITYWIDE — A city arborist who ignited growing concern over the health of Santa Monica’s trees says that the three-man crew he worked on was not enough to respond to the needs of residents and the urban forest’s 35,000 trees.
City Hall contracts with West Coast Arborists, a private firm that works with many Southern California cities, to select, plant and care for its street trees. City Hall also maintains a small crew that supervises that work and connect with the public.
Although West Coast Arborists is under contract to deal with emergencies, it’s sometimes faster for city crews to deal with time-sensitive situations, like private property threatened by a failing limb, said Robin Beaudry, the city arborist.
“If one guy was on vacation, or one guy was sick, you can’t send a crew out, because you need three people. It’s a safety issue,” said Beaudry, who is on leave from the city after he said he injured his back while trying to repair a damaged tree.
He and his tree trimming crew represent the municipal employees responsible for trees. The team recently lost two of its upper management to retirement as well as a long-time arborist, who Beaudry replaced.
Beaudry has since filed a complaint with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, expressing concerns that West Coast Arborists knowingly provided Santa Monica with defective trees and that city officials may have known about it, but did nothing. His complaint is under review.
In the past, the Public Landscape Division has been responsible for the oversight of a multi-million dollar contract with West Coast Arborists, something that members of the Urban Forest Task Force called into question last month when concerns arose about sick and dying trees.
The community forester, one of the positions that has remained vacant since December, was also supposed to inspect trees chosen by West Coast Arborists. Over 1,500 trees were planted in recent years, according to a report by a private consultant hired by city officials.
The staffing concerns come at a time when City Manager Rod Gould has stated his intentions to move the division out from under Community & Cultural Services and into the Public Works Department, which he feels is better-suited to the kind of work and large contracts handled by the Public Landscape Division employees.
Whether or not staffing levels will change will be up to Martin Pastucha, the director of that department, Gould said.
“As Public Works integrates the Public Landscape Division into the department, we will review the staffing, supervision and administration as well as policies and practices of the division, and make the adjustments as [needed],” Gould said.
What those might be has yet to be determined, he said.
The hybrid model is not unique to Santa Monica.
It’s been adopted by other cities, including nearby Beverly Hills, Calif. which tends 25,000 street trees with the help of West Coast Arborists, and Los Angeles, with its 1 million public trees.
L.A. has its own Urban Forestry Division with staff “tree surgeons,” but it too contracts out certain tree trimming services through its Department of Public Works, according to its website.
Other cities in the area rely on contractors entirely, like suburban Calabasas, Calif., which uses Newbury Park Tree Service for its work, or Manhattan Beach, Calif., which inked a deal with West Coast Arborists just this month.
Rick Dozal, for one, is excited about the new deal.
Dozal is the public works streets supervisor for Manhattan Beach, and has worked for the city for 28 years. In that time, city officials have always chosen to contract out the street tree work, although his employees would inspect trees when necessary.
He expects that residents will call the Public Works Department first, and then the work can be referred to West Coast Arborists.
“They’re on call with us, even if trees go down or limbs go down for emergency, after hours or on weekends, they’re going to respond to that kind of stuff,” Dozal said.
While those cities embrace a hands-off model, Beverly Hills uses a similar method to Santa Monica.
Beverly Hills has no employees that actually do tree work, unless a limb is lying on the ground and needs to be removed, said Ken Pfalzgraf, the parks and urban forest manager with the city.
That’s a big change from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when that work was first contracted out, he said.
Now, Pfalzgraf and his team of two urban forest inspectors supervise West Coast Arborists’ work crews when they come through the city, actually running through pruning exercises on model trees to ensure that everyone’s on the same page.
“I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to take care of trees, and I’ve got 100 years of trees out there,” Pfalzgraf said.
Pfalzgraf has the same attitude toward tree selection, which he personally inspects to the best of his ability. He also helped craft the contract with West Coast Arborists after a bidding process so restrictive that only two companies even bothered to submit applications.
That contract is very similar to Santa Monica’s own contract, on which West Coast Arborists was the only bidder.
The Urban Forest Task Force and a private consultant recommended that City Hall put its own tree contract back out to bid, in order to attract more competition. It will be up to the private marketplace to see who shows up.