Copies to: Santa Monica City Council, City Manager, Planning Commission, Task Force on the Environment, Recreation and Parks Commission, city staff, interested citizens, media representatives
We are writing to express concern about recent events that are having the unfortunate effect of discouraging public participation in the Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force’s process and inciting public mistrust of the Task Force.
1. When completed, the Urban Forest Master Plan will affect residents, voters, taxpayers, businesses and visitors in the city for the next 50-100 years. As a result, many members of our community are intensely interested in the work of the Task Force.
2. The Task Force’s original agenda called for completion of its work in June 2011. The group’s recommendations were to be forwarded to the City Council via three city entities: the Environmental Task Force, the Recreation and Parks Commission and the Planning Commission. The Task Force’s original agenda called for the presentation of its Master Plan to City Council on October 20, 2011.
3. In response to complaints about lack of public notice and transparency this past summer, the city sent notices to city residents in August advising them of the work of the Task Force and offering opportunities for public input.
4. The Task Force assured citizens that public input would be taken into account as the Task Force worked toward developing a Master Plan. It further assured citizens that the Task Force’s process would be open and transparent.
5. All told, hundreds of community members have offered public input and testimony, and have signed petitions to the Task Force. This demonstrates that many people in our community have deeply held opinions and concerns about the trees that frame our homes, define our neighborhoods and grace our city. Yet even now, more people are just beginning to hear about the work of the Task Force and are desiring to get involved in the selection of street trees for their areas.
6. Specific recommendations for replacement trees have been prepared for the Task Force by its Species Selection Subcommittee. This subcommittee has deliberated in sessions that were closed to the public.
7. Two public input sessions were held in September in response to public complaints about lack of transparency, and were promoted as efforts to gather public advice on street tree selection. Two of the three Task Force members who serve on the crucial Tree Selection Subcommittee did not attend the second of these sessions.
8. Through Task Force sign-in sheets, many citizens shared their email addresses with the city in the expectation that they would receive timely information about upcoming meetings of the Task Force as well as about potential revisions in the city’s Draft Urban Forest Master Plan that might affect their homes, neighborhoods, businesses and personal well-being.
9. Through testimony, petitions and other input, members of the public have spoken consistently and eloquently about desires to maintain and preserve the city’s beautiful, historic and iconic allees of palm trees; to replace palms with other palms when replacement is necessary; and to keep historic allees free of interplanting with other, non-palm species. The city’s Land Use & Circulation Element also calls for maintaining and preserving the unique and historic streetscapes of the city’s diverse neighborhoods.
10. At its meeting on Sept. 26, 2011, the Task Force unveiled the recommendations of the Species Selection Subcommittee.
11. The Species Selection Subcommittee’s report and accompanying draft Master Plan were the culmination of months of work, and will form the backbone of the Task Force’s plan for the future of the city’s street trees. The two lengthy documents that were discussed at the Sept. 26th meeting contain detailed and intricate street-by-street and block-by-block descriptions of the subcommittee’s vision of the trees to be planted in the city’s parkways for the next 50 to 100 years.
12. Members of the Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force received two reports (the subcommittee’s report and an appendix that included the street-by-street tree recommendations) by email in advance of the Sept. 26 meeting. Members of the public did not receive either report before the meeting.
13. Because members of the public did not receive the reports in advance of the meeting, they were precluded from organizing neighborhood attendance at the meeting or gathering neighborhood responses to the subcommittee’s recommendations.
14. Members of the public who did attend the Sept. 26th meeting were told they had just 48 hours to provide written responses to the recommendations.
15. Some members of the public who attended the Sept. 26th meeting were clearly unhappy that they had not been notified in advance of the subcommittee’s recommendations. They heckled the Task Force loudly midway through the meeting, demanding the right to speak, and were told by the Task Force chair that they were out oforder.
16. Despite the public’s well-articulated desire to maintain and preserve the city’s historic palm allees, the subcommittee’s recommendations designate non-palm species for replacement or interplantings on palm-dominated streets in at least six neighborhoods.
17. The Task Force also appears to have eliminated all language regarding protection of “significant trees, allees and groupings that are iconic or historic in nature” from its working draft.
18. Despite repeated requests from the public throughout the Task Force’s deliberations, the current draft of the Urban Forest Master Plan does not provide for an appeals process or public collaboration in matters relating to street trees.
19. The Draft Master Plan also contains no mechanism for fine-tuning tree planting plans on street segments, particularly in the palm districts, where there is a high level of neighborhood interest, and where planting and placement decisions may be complex and will have consequences for decades to come.
20. Members of the public were told that the Task Force must complete its work by October 5, 2011, with presentation to City Council promised for December 2011. Thisleaves just one more Task Force meeting for discussion of countless intricate details involving recommendations for street trees on all of the city’s many streets.
21. The Task Force has no articulated process for next steps that affected citizens can discern. It is not clear when the city’s boards and commissions will consider the Task Force’s finished product, how citizens may provide input to those groups, or how differing revisions of the Task Force’s report might be reconciled. A work agenda currently displayed on the Task Force’s website is out of date and inaccurate.
22. The foregoing creates the distinct impression that the Task Force is being rushed to meet an arbitrary deadline at the expense of the integrity of its process. Creating a master plan for the city’s street trees is a massive project. Neither Task Force members nor members of the public can responsibly analyze the enormous amounts of data necessary for reasoned decision-making in the time allotted.
23. The foregoing creates the further impression that the city is not being candid when it claims that it values public input in the tree selection process. Public input in the development of Santa Monica’s Urban Forest Master Plan seems to be neither desired nor heeded, but seems rather to be at best window dressing for an extraordinarily rushed and flawed process. There is a widely held perception among members of the public that the next hundred years of the city’s urban forest are being shaped by a Task Force that discounts and disregards the wishes and judgments of citizens.
24. We urge the Task Force to pull back, extend its deadlines, and seek to engage with the public in a comprehensive, collaborative and genuine fashion. Railroading this Master Plan through to meet an arbitrary, pre-arranged deadline will only stoke further public distrust of the Task Force and its process.
Patricia E. Bauer
502 20th Street
609 21st Street