LAY OF THE LAND: A row of mostly mature coral trees line the median on San Vicente Boulevard near 20th Street. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)
LAY OF THE LAND: A row of mostly mature coral trees line the median on San Vicente Boulevard near 20th Street. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)
LAY OF THE LAND: A row of mostly mature coral trees line the median on San Vicente Boulevard near 20th Street. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

KEN EDWARDS CENTER — The Urban Forest Task Force expressed confidence Wednesday in a new plan by Public Works officials to review and monitor work by the contractor that cares for Santa Monica’s trees in the wake of accusations of poor management and sloppy practices.

The department will put out a call to arborists to conduct a survey of recently planted trees in Santa Monica’s urban forest to check on the relative strength of the roots, and division employees will conduct spot checks of the contractor’s work to ensure that its crews are following proper tree trimming procedures, said Martin Pastucha, director of Public Works at City Hall.

A pair of interns will go through the city cataloguing each tree in the forest and compare their findings against a database released by West Coast Arborists, City Hall’s contractor, while the department develops its own database, taking the responsibility out of the hands of the contractor.

In addition, the department will review the existing agreement with West Coast Arborists, and likely change details about tree planting and maintenance so that they’re in line with national standards for clarity in both care and billing that was lacking in the past, Pastucha said.

“That’s where we get in some difficulty with how to price out that sort of work,” Pastucha said. “If we tie it back to industry standard, there are prices that are followed by that model.”

Wednesday was the first time that the task force met after the Public Landscape Division was transferred from the Community & Cultural Services Department to the Public Works Department on July 1.

Task force members seemed pleased and relieved by the response to their concerns about the state of the trees, which they have been trying to force to the front of the agenda since problems were first brought to light in late 2012.

“I’m really happy, now I can stop worrying about this as our thing that we have to carry,” said Grace Phillips, the chair of the task force.

Concerns about the state of Santa Monica’s urban forest were brought to the attention of the task force by Robin Beaudry, a city arborist.

Beaudry documented problems with trees in which roots were circling or girdling, conditions that can lead to the premature death of the tree.

He alleged in a letter to the District Attorney’s Office that West Coast Arborists had conspired to purchase and plant bad trees, and then charged City Hall to replace them.

Former Community Forest Supervisor Randy Little requested a report by HortScience, a firm that consults on urban forests, which reviewed 54 trees to get a sense of the relative health of the urban forest.

The review Pastucha announced Wednesday night would have to include almost 500 trees out of the roughly 2,700 that West Coast Arborists planted in the past five years to get a statistically valid sample, he said.

City Hall also hired Management Partners, a consulting firm, to review the work of the Public Landscape Division and how its leadership dealt with the West Coast Arborists contract.

That review found no wrongdoing, just bad accounting practices, although Management Partners did not complete a forensic audit. City officials promised a thorough look at invoices issued by West Coast Arborists and subsequent payments by the office.

They also requested that West Coast Arborists turn over control of a database in which their workers accounted for the planting and replacement of trees.

Pastucha revealed preliminary information culled from that database Wednesday that shows the number of trees planted and replanted over the course of the last five years.

In that time, West Coast Arborists planted 2,709 trees and replaced 192, charging City Hall for 170. They also found 73 trees that were dead as of June 30, 2013 and another 71 empty holes where trees were supposed to be.

While task force members were happy with the response, and even chose not to send a letter to the City Council outlining previously held concerns, they were worried that Pastucha did not have the employees he needed to put the ambitious work plan into place.

Beaudry is out on medical leave and both Community Forester Walt Warriner and Little left within months of each other.

The interns will be working through September, and Pastucha hopes to have the community forester position filled by November.

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