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Posted by on July 1, 2010.

Pruning of city’s arborist staff alarms Atlanta tree supporters

By John Schaffner
johnschaffner@reporternewspapers.net

Personnel changes among the city of Atlanta’s field arborists are raising new concerns among some Buckhead residents who worry city officials may be showing greater love for bricks and mortar than for saving trees.

The number of city field arborists, who enforce the city tree ordinance, has dropped from five a month ago to just two.

Arborist Janell Bazile recently resigned and arborists Paul Lewkowicz and David Tachon were let go as part of a reduction in the size of the city workforce, city officials say.

But tree advocates are criticizing the personnel changes, claiming the arborists who are departing were more effective at enforcing the tree ordinance than those who remain with the city.

The Tree Next Door organization — founded by former city arborist Tom Coffin, Dr. Jeri Breiner and other supporters of the city’s tree ordinance — sent a letter to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed protesting the moves.

The Tree Next Door organization said on its website that it plans to conduct its own analysis of the operations of the arborists, including requesting records from the city, for the first and second quarter of this year.

Julian Bene, another longtime supporter of enforcing the city’s tree protection ordinance, also e-mailed complaints to the mayor and other city officials.

“In view of the history of the arborist department within the Bureau of Buildings, you should not be surprised that Atlantans who believe in the importance of preserving what remains of the city’s tree cover do not trust your motives in this latest [reduction in force],” Bene wrote.

“The questions for you are: (1) Do you support protecting mature trees from removal or damage by construction to the maximum extent provided by the tree protection ordinance? (2) Will you commit to a professional cadre of arborists who will be allowed to enforce the ordinance and shielded from harassment by pro-builder management?”

Dist. 7 Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook said the claim that the two arborists were let go because they were more aggressive than others in enforcing the tree ordinance “is an interesting theory.”

But, he said, there is a more important factor involved: rules spelled out in the code for which employees may be let go during a reduction in the city workforce. City rules say that when the number of positions in a given activity must be reduced, the employees undergo an evaluation that puts a premium on years of service.

To ignore the retention rules is considered a sure-fire way of losing a lawsuit for wrongful firing, the council member said.

“Unfortunately, this sometimes results in the retention of employees who have learned to ‘game’ the system at the expense of those who are younger and more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” he said.

Responding to a request for information on the arborists’ departures, Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman said, “We are unable to comment on personnel issues.”

However, Sheldon Schlegman, a member of The Tree Next Door, said Aman has asked that any specific complaints against the remaining arborists be sent to Planning Commission James Shelby.

Shelby was on vacation and unable to comment. Ainsley Caldwell, who heads up the arborist division of the Bureau of Buildings, did not return phone calls.

“No recent administration has held both senior and junior employees more accountable than Mayor Reed’s,” Aman said in an e-mail to Schlegman and members of The Tree Next Door. “Indeed, we have developed a very strong reputation of holding individuals accountable for job performance and will continue to do so.”

Meanwhile, former chief field arborist Coffin says a hearing has been delayed on his lawsuit claiming he was improperly fired. Oral arguments on the city’s request the lawsuit be dismissed “has again been postponed, this time because of a scheduling conflict by one of my attorneys,” Coffin reported. The hearing is scheduled for July 30.

“My disappointment over the delay is tempered by knowing that another month will not enhance the city’s position,” Coffin said. “Meanwhile, we are ready for trial and eager to present the facts to judge and jury.”