Why We Are Monitoring Arborist Productivity

Last Updated on Saturday, 19 December 2015 00:06

The article below was published on June 22, 2010, shortly after two city arborists were let go in a budget related downsizing.  Although we did not dispute the need for staff reduction, particularly given the City's budget crisis, we did question why the City let go what we believed were the two more productive of the arborists on staff.  Peter Aman, the City's COO, claimed that his hands were tied as to how the staff was reduced but assured us that arborists who do not do a satisfactory job "can and will be replaced".  Therefore, to prove to Aman that the staff the City had chosen to retain were failing to perform satisfactorily, we began to conduct a productivity analysis of the remaining arborists.

The first productivity analysis was published on August 30, 2010, followed by on-going investigative reports.  In September 2010, David Tachon, one of the two city arborists who were let go in June, was hired back.

All of the reports can be found under Investigative Reports in the Advocacy section of the website.


In June 2010, the City of Atlanta reduced the number of field arborists from 5 to 2. Arborist Janell Bazile resigned and arborists Paul Lewkowicz and David Tachon were RIFed, meaning they were let go by a "Reduction in Force".  While The Tree Next Door recognizes that City employee layoffs are occuring due to budget issues, why did the City chose to keep the two arborists whose records show less professional pride, competence and willingness to enforce the tree ordinance than the two arborists who were let go?

On June 13, Sheldon Schlegman, Chair of The Tree Next Door, sent an open letter to the City's Mayor, COO, and Commissioner of Planing and Community Development, suggesting that the City -- with its decision to eliminate arborists Lewkowicz and Tachon  -- was continuing its support of Ibrahim Maslamani's policy of non-enforcement and accommodation that severely undercuts the Tree Protection Ordinance.  Maslamani is the former Director of the Bureau of Buildings who presided over Tom Coffin's firing, and was recently fired himself, apparently for colluding with his chief of the inspection division (also fired) to sign off on unpermitted work being done on a Great Clips franchise owned by Maslamani's wife.

Peter Aman, Atlanta's COO, responded by email, saying:

"Thank you for your interest in trees and the arborist's efforts. We understand your concern, but with regards to the reduction in force, we have no discretion in how individuals are selected to be eliminated-that is set forth by the City Council in the Code of the city-we must follow this process of selecting individuals-it is city law. Certainly if those individuals that remain do not do a satisfactory job they can and will be replaced."

When Schlegman responded that this answer was "unsatisfactory" and Aman was simply "passing the issue back to the City Council", Aman replied:

"We certainly are not "passing the buck," just explaining that we have to follow the law like everyone else. Please note the last line of my explanation. No recent administration has held both senior and junior employees more accountable than Mayor Reed's. Indeed, we have developed a very strong reputation of holding individuals accountable for job performance and will continue to do so. Please pass on specific examples of poor performance of arborists to Commissioner Shelby."

To which Schlegman responded:

"The City Council was supposed to do an audit of the arborists. Why has that not happened? I also wonder why it is my job to unearth the lack of performance of city employees. I thought that was your job."

Aman did not reply.  The audit that Schlegman refers to was approved by unanimous vote of the Community Development/Human Resources committee of the City Council on August 26, 2008.  To our knowledge, no audit ever occurred.

Therefore, The Tree Next Door assumes that the City will not perform any meaningful or trustworthy productivity analysis of the Arborist Division, despite what City Council has requested them to do.  Thus, we are initiating an independent analysis and have requested the relevant records for the first and second quarter of 2010.  Analysis of these two quarters of data will be interesting in themselves and will provide a baseline for further analysis over time.  We plan to publish the results of this analysis on this Website.

 

Credibility Lost

Last Updated on Friday, 22 July 2011 07:36

In addition to replacing the Arborist Division Manager and naming a new director for the Bureau of Buildings -- which oversees the Arborist Division -- City COO, Peter Aman, informed us in December 2010 that the City was completing its Legal Department investigation of the performance of several Arborist Division employees "within 45 days or so".  The investigation was completed and released to us in March 2011.  Disappointingly, it turned out not to be an investigation at all, but mere conversations held with the very people whose veracity was in question.  The city arborists who were supposed to be investigated were instead asked to provide their side of the story.  No external people who may have provided contradictory evidence were interviewed.  No fact checking occurred to verify the accuracy of the city arborists' statements.  Embarrassingly, The Tree Next Door was quickly able to prove that the former manager of the Arborist Division had lied during his conversation with the city lawyers to explain why he had failed to enforce the Standards of Practice during his tenure as manager.  Aman has yet to provide any explanation as to why this manager lied and why no disciplinary action has been taken, leading us to conclude that any investigation authorized by Aman is apt to be riddled with falsehoods.

Below is the email that Aman sent us in December.


From: "Aman, Peter T." < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date: Wed, 15 Dec 2010 12:39:32 -0500

Mr. Schlegman, (and please copy to the TTND website)

Thank you for your note and analysis, as well as your continued passion on this subject-we are eager to be held accountable.  As I have said before, this administration IS fully committed to the protection of trees as outlined in the various code sections, and more generally beyond that we are very supportive of protecting the tree canopy, parks, and other green space throughout the city of Atlanta.  So, your assumption that somehow the administration wants poor performance is very much mistaken.

We do have, however, many priorities we need to work on simultaneously (e.g., crime prevention and response, EMS response times, critical infrastructure like bridges, cost control, and many others) as well as limited resources caused by years of budget cuts.  The unfortunate fact is that many things do not happen as fast as you or I would like.  Additionally, we do have an obligation to both taxpayers and employees to fully investigate matters relative to both personnel and process deficiencies, and are in the concluding stages of some of that work.  All of this, I am sure you will point out, is mere words of course.  You should know however that several changes are in process now-specifically:

Changes in personnel:
1)     We have replaced the Director of the Bureau of Buildings (Mr. Caldwell's supervisor) with a highly experienced and capable NEW director, Don Rosenthal, who has been charged with, among other things, improving operations in the arborist division.

2)     We are replacing the Manager of the Arborist Division and are commencing a search, this week in fact, for a new Manager.  Mr. Caldwell will be moving to a new position which focuses on the biology of tree evaluation and preservation within the Arborist group and will be leading additional training for the entire group on these subjects.

3)     Other personnel actions will be forthcoming, if appropriate, based on results of the investigation, see below.

Investigation:
1)     As I mentioned before, we have asked the Law Department's Investigation group to conduct a formal investigation into the performance of the Arborist Division and several of its members.  This is in process but, as I warned two months ago, will take significant time to complete-they currently believe they will be finished within 45 days or so.  As we have findings from this we will take additional actions as appropriate.

Process Improvement:
1)     New policies and procedures related to field inspections, reliable reporting practices, timely data entry, and supervisory oversight, are also currently in the developmental stages. These new standards are based upon core quality assurance principles, i.e., efficient, effective and timely service deliver to internal and external customers.  As these are being fully developed we have, of course, emphasized the basics of the process which can and are being implemented immediately.

While I apologize for not keeping you and your group better informed as to our progress, you will see that we have in fact been quite busy on this specific subject and have made significant changes with more to come.

Many thanks,
Peter

 


This article was cited in The Buckhead Reporter on December 17, 2010.

 

 

Standards of Practice Ignored

The Standards of Practice of the City of Atlanta's Arborist Division are meant to govern the implementation and enforcement of the city's Tree Protection Ordinance but are largely ignored by the field arborist staff.  The Standards provide the basis for a fair, unbiased and arboriculturally sound approach to the law. They are a critical check on and deterrent to arbitrary decision-making by both plan reviewers and field arborists. Like the ordinance itself, these Standards are largely ignored by the field arborist staff, whose arbitrary decisions, actions and -- critically -- inactions are routinely ignored or excused by the This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and his superiors. No accountability to either the law or the Standards is demanded at any level. This culture of excused non-compliance must be challenged and overturned if Atlanta's signature environmental law is to be more than words on paper.

Join The Tree Next Door today to show your support for enforcing Atlanta's Tree Ordinance!

   

City Government Broken In More Places Than One

Since the article below was first published on 9-24-10, Shel Schlegman, Chair of The Tree Next Door,  has met with Peter Aman, the City's COO, and James Shelby, the City's Planning Commissioner.  The minutes from that meeting can be found here .
Peter Aman, the City's COO, acknowledges that Atlanta's city government is "largely broken" in a September 23 article published by The Buckhead Reporter which notes that:

An audit by the city found that, until recently, the [Code Compliance] office was so poorly managed that records often vanished, inspectors logged in jobs before they even visited the site...

These are the same kind of activities we have recently uncovered occurring in the Arborist Division.

Atlanta City Council unanimously approved a resolution authorizing an independent audit of the Arborist Division of the Bureau of Buildings on August 26, 2008, shortly after field arborist Tom Coffin was wrongfully terminated for doing too good of a job in enforcing the tree ordinance.  It has been two years since that audit was approved and it still has not been conducted. 

In written correspondence this past June, Aman stated:

No recent administration has held both senior and junior employees more accountable than Mayor Reed's. Indeed, we have developed a very strong reputation of holding individuals accountable for job performance and will continue to do so. Please pass on specific examples of poor performance of arborists to Commissioner Shelby.

On Monday, September 20, we passed on those specific examples.  Now we are waiting on the City's response.

 

An Open Letter to Mayor Reed


Since this letter was sent, there has been a great deal of focus on the Office of Code Compliance, which has been suffering from the same lack of accountability as the Arborist Division.   Peter Aman, the City's COO, is now publically acknowledging that the city government is largely broken

June 13, 2010

Dear Mayor Reed:

As written, Atlanta has the strongest, most comprehensive and effective Tree Protection Ordinance in the nation.  However, in its latest Reduction in Force, Atlanta has chosen to retain on staff the weakest, least capable and professional field arborists to enforce the Tree Protection Ordinance.

The City recently fired Ibrahim Maslamani, Director of the Bureau of Buildings.  We enthusiastically applaud that decision.  Maslamani initiated and oversaw a policy of non-enforcement and “accommodation” that severely undercut the Tree Protection Ordinance, enabled lawbreakers and encouraged a “look the other way” ethos in the Arborist Division.

The City had the chance to begin to address this destructive policy in the latest round of forced layoffs.  Your administration chose instead to retain Maslamani’s policy and compound the problems he created.  Your staff chose to layoff the two field arborists whose records indicate some professional pride and competence and some willingness to enforce the law.  They chose to retain the two field arborists whose records show none.  Keeping arborists Stan Domengeaux and Michael Franklin on the payroll is a colossal waste and misuse of taxpayer money.

Mayor Reed:  Clean up the mess in the Arborist Division. Get rid of Domengeaux and Franklin.  Seniority does not protect Atlanta’s trees; only professionalism and dedication to enforcing our Tree Protection Ordinance will save our urban tree canopy.

Very truly yours,

Sheldon Schlegman, Chair
404.814.1226
The Tree Next Door
“An Organization of Neighbors Dedicated to Protecting Atlanta’s Tree Canopy”

Website: www.treenextdoor.org
Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Cc:  Peter Aman, Chief Operating Officer
       James Shelby, Commissioner of Planning and Community Development


Check out one Atlanta resident's call to action as a response to this letter.
   

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