By Mark Gutglueck
Dissatisfaction with Upland’s public works director, which has been mounting for months, manifested full blown this week when the former chairman of the city’s tree committee came before the city council to resign, saying he was driven to leave over what he characterized as deliberate mismanagement of the city’s premier public amenity.
Rosemary Hoerning, who has been Upland’s public works director since August 2011, had already encountered rough sledding earlier this year when a council member obliquely questioned her work ethic. That questioning arose as a consequence of her recommendation that the city hire engineering consultants to undertake assignments such as plan and spec drawing for road paving, which some residents believe Hoerning, a certified engineer with several licenses, should have carried out herself, with a cost savings of more than $150,000 to the city.
At the center of the contretemps this week is Upland’s tree-lined Euclid Avenue and its median, one of the most impressive and physically lengthy such features in the world, one which compares favorably with similar such enhancements in Palo Alto in Northern California and Dearborn, Michigan.
The Euclid median was the conception of the founders of the Ontario/Upland Colony, George and William Chaffey, who laid out Euclid, running some seven miles from the south end of Ontario north to San Antonio Heights north of Upland at the foothills below Mt. San Antonio, in the 1880s. Originally, the 53-foot wide median boasted a horse-drawn trolley. The trolley has given way to what is referred to as a bridle path but which is utilized mostly as a walking or jogging trail lying between dual rows of trees, including fern pines, silk oaks and California peppers. In South Ontario, both sides of Euclid serve as a dense commercial zone. As Euclid progresses northward, in north Ontario and through most of Upland, Euclid traverses several designated historic districts, with craftsman homes and civic buildings, including some dating from the late 19th Century lining either side of the avenue. Throughout that span of Euclid, the median composes, with the trees standing along both sides of the street, what its aficionados refer to as the “urban forest.”
Historically, Upland, or a major part of it, was considered, along with Redlands’ Smiley Heights and some of the neighborhoods in unincorporated Lake Arrowhead, to be among San Bernardino County’s most upscale and resplendent areas. At one time, Upland laid claim to being host to the most affluent population in the county as measured in per capita or per household income, a title it has now surrendered to the City of Chino Hills. But it remains at the forefront of the county as one of its more prestigious municipalities, and much of that cachet consists of the urban forest corridor that is Euclid Avenue, which is bordered by ever more impressive single family homes as one goes northward, giving way to ever more stately abodes which in turn give way to mansions intersticed with occasional manors.
This week, on Monday, May 9, the city council in closed session took secretive action with regard to a number of trees located on either side of Euclid Avenue or in its median. Reports were that the closed session was held using the justification that the council’s action pertained to potential legal liability and that liability consisted of drought-stricken trees which represented a danger because of the possibility that limbs from the trees might break off and fall, potentially raining down on a passerby, passersby or vehicles. Accordingly, the trees were to be taken out. Reportedly, the recommendation to remove the trees came from a consultant, retained by the city at Hoerning’s request.
Even before the council met, word of what was about to happen had emanated beyond City Hall.
Two days before Monday’s city council meeting, on May 7, John Ickis, an Upland resident and licensed arborist sent an email to the mayor, all four council members and Hoerning. “I noticed some orange dots on the 80 foot 100+ year old giant fern pines that line the edge of State Route 83 on my morning run,” the email began. “There is nothing wrong with these trees and do not remove any of those trees or you are bound to have enormous community uproar. This behavior is not going to be tolerated by me nor the multimillion dollar property owners along Historic Euclid Avenue. These trees are of very high value and should not be sold as furniture or sculptures by your unethical tree contractor.”
City officials, however, did not put much stock in Ickis’ warning, and Monday night retreated into closed session. According to city attorney Richard Adams, during that closed session there was a “conference with legal counsel concerning anticipated litigation. In closed session, special counsel Robert Gokoo made a presentation to the council concerning the urban forest report that covered risk management liability issues with regard to the city’s urban forest. The city council received the report, however took no action in closed session.”
During the meeting’s public comment section, Rusty Cushing, a member of and past chairman of the city’s street tree advisory committee, took the podium. Cushing, an agronomist whose professional experience included serving as a field agronomist and entomologist with the Air Force and who has taught within the discipline of ornamental horticulture at both Cal Poly Pomona and Mount San Antonio College, told the council, “I resign from the street tree advisory committee, effective immediately. In the last 45 years as a field agronomist with the United States Air Force and an entomologist serving all over the world during two wars, this is by far the worst professional experience I have ever had to endure, being on the street tree advisory committee for the City of Upland. When I first got on the committee, I went around and I visited with folks from other communities. We talked about their committees and their urban forests and what their requirements were and what their volunteer programs were and I came up with some really good ideas, some really good plans. Unfortunately, I was never able to initiate those plans. I got shut down the very first time I wrote an agenda with this bunch and it got worse from there. At one point we went 14 months without having a street tree advisory committee meeting. It’s beyond sad. The stated purpose and the duties of the street tree advisory committee is to study the proposed urban forestry management plan and make appropriate recommendations to the city council and staff regarding matters contained therein, provide an avenue for citizen appeal, special circumstantial tree problems, tree removals, street tree designations, spraying of insects and tree removal and other policies. Now you folks just had a private meeting regarding the removal of trees on Euclid Avenue. Your street tree advisory committee didn’t know anything about that. We were never informed. That’s one of our duties. You got hoodwinked. You got conned. The esteemed leader Rosemary Hoerning told you this was an emergency and this concerned liability, and so she kept it quiet, didn’t say anything to anybody, used that to get funds to go out and hire a consultant to tell you exactly what two members of your street tree advisory committee could have told you for nothing. I don’t know how many thousands of dollars you spent on this, but you had that information available in-house. That’s a perfect example of ‘Can’t Get No Respect.’”
Cushing said city officials had purposefully short circuited the tree committee and compromised its effectiveness.
“The street tree advisory committee has been a dumping ground for political hacks and supporters and friends for the last four years,” he said. “We used to have a requirement: To get on the street tree advisory committee you used to have to have a background and experience in horticulture and some form of what we dealt with. That requirement no longer exists. We now have people on the committee who really don’t care about trees, and they don’t know about trees. Periodically I would read the purpose and the duties of the committee to the committee and the city people who run our meetings. The city people would shake their heads and I had two of the committee members tell me they didn’t really join the committee to work on trees. I don’t know what that’s all about. I don’t know why they were there, but they were there. So, at any rate, if you are ever going to clean this mess up, you’ve go to put some restrictions on who you have on your committee. In all the years that I have been in business, and advised and worked all over the world, I have never, ever encountered a more dangerous individual in the workplace than Rosemary Hoerning.” Cushing said he considered her to be “dangerous, disruptive, deceptive.”
City attorney Richard Adams commented on the tenor of Cushing’s statements, saying, “It’s inappropriate for people to make derogatory comments about staff members but [they] can address issues of performance.”
Later during public comments, Heidi Hall, who has lived in Upland for 28 years, said she was likewise skeptical of the need to remove trees along Euclid Avenue.
“My husband and I moved to Upland from our home town of Pasadena,” she said. “Upland was a great choice, a lovely bedroom community with two very important components: the majestic view of the mountains and one of the most beautiful streets I had ever seen, Euclid Avenue.” Hall said that through social media she had “learned there are over 200 pepper trees lining Euclid that have been marked and will be taken down due to disease. I am asking the council to share the details with us, exactly what is wrong with our trees and how can we keep this from happening to our existing healthy trees. I understand if there is a botanist or a professional in horticulture who has identified tree disease, then they must come down. However I implore you to replace each and every one of the trees that are removed. I do not want to hear that as a city we are struggling financially and the funds are not there to replace the trees. Please think outside of the box.”
The Sentinel caught up with Cushing three days after his resignation from the tree committee. He enlarged upon his Monday evening statement, saying Hoerning “manufactured a phony liability crisis. This was very Machiavellian. That is not to say there were not problems with some of the trees, which is the result of a couple or three years of drought. But there are far more serious problem trees elsewhere in the city other than on Euclid Avenue. She cooked up this crisis and involved the city attorney with this liability question to, essentially, make herself look good. How do we know that? On the city street tree committee is a woman with absolutely impeccable credentials. Denise Jeanson is an arborist who is a longtime employee with the County of Los Angeles. Denise is that county’s liability specialist with regard to trees. Everyone with the City of Upland knows how good she is. She’s the one they have gone to for many years when they have these issues with trees when they don’t have the knowledge to deal with them on their own. Rosemary bypassed Denise and she bypassed me and she bypassed the committee. She kept it a secret from us. She declared an emergency to justify hiring a consultant, who did what all consultants do, which is tell whoever has hired them what they want to hear. As near as I can tell this whole thing was contrived. It was a set up. She [Hoerning] had Denise at her fingertips. Denise would have told her that yes, there were problems with some of the trees but there is no need to tear these trees out wholesale. She never asked Denise. She never asked me. I drive up and down Euclid at least three times a day. I would have told her the same thing. She could have had this analysis at no cost to the city. But this was orchestrated so Rosemary could come in and save the day. And the city manager backed her up and they used the term ‘liability’ and that gave the city attorney the chance to stand up and beat his chest. There were all sorts of other avenues she could have pursued to cure this. This was a manufactured crisis to take the heat off of her lack of performance and other problems.”
Two months previously, Councilman Glen Bozar had likewise taken issue with Hoernig’s affinity for bringing in consultants to undertake work within the public works department. In March, Hoerning requested authorization to hire an outside engineering firm, at a cost of $52,000, to draw up the plans and specifications for a road pavement project on 14th Street. Bozar questioned that requested expenditure, indirectly and somewhat elliptically suggesting that Hoerning – who holds a bachelors degree in civil engineering and a masters degree in public administration and is a registered professional engineer, civil engineer and land surveyor – was capable of drawing up the plans and specifications herself. Hoerning carries the title of public works director/city engineer and is paid $181,764 in salary, $60,511.21 in benefits and $14,098.12 in other pay for a total annual compensation of $256,373.87. City manager Rod Butler acknowledged that on a typical municipal employee compensation schedule, an engineer ranks higher than an administrator in the public works division, and that Hoerning was being paid at a level denoting she was functioning as an engineer. Thus, there appeared to be a basis for Bozar’s request that Hoerning perform the required engineering work for the street paving project. The city employs two engineers who work under Hoerning, but Hoerning maintained that they were engaged in performing project management tasks with regard to other city programs and thus were unavailable for engineering assignments. To the suggestion that Hoerning should be detailed to carry out the engineering work, it was pointed out that she was too engaged in administrative work in the public works division to do that. This led to an imputation that she should then sustain a one-third cut in pay and in benefits from her more than quarter of a million dollar compensation package, since she was not engaged in the more demanding engineering work.
Hoerning spurned repeated invitations from the Sentinel this week to provide a defense of both her action with regard to the trees on Euclid Avenue and her level of compensation.
Just prior to the public comment session at Monday night’s council meeting, as a prelude to the National 56th Annual Public Works Week celebration which is being held this year from May 15 through May 21, Hoerning gave a presentation outlining the scope of her department’s work.
She referenced the city’s public works staff, saying, “I’m very proud of the activities that they perform for the community of Upland.” She said her division engaged in “right of way maintenance” of “about 125 acres of right of way the city of Upland maintains. Some of it is done by a contract force, but a good portion of it is done by the staff itself.” She also referenced “park maintenance. The city has 13 parks and the public works department is responsible for improvements at those parks and the cleanliness of those parks. We also are responsible for public trees. Sometimes our trees fail and we have to go out and address the breakages that occur.”
She then cited “signage and lighting. We have almost 9,000 signs in the city. We have about 650 street lights that we’re responsible for and 83 traffic signals. And so the public works department is responsible for the upkeep of those facilities.”
With regard to “sidewalk maintenance,” she said “We have a number of areas around the city that have deficiencies and customers call our office and ask for public works to come out and mitigate the hazard that might be in front of their home. We’re responsible for filling potholes. Some of our roads have some of those issues, especially after the rain events, so it keeps our staff pretty busy filling potholes and making sure the road is safe for community residents.”
With regard to “capital improvement projects,” Hoerning said, “We have a number of roadway improvement projects planned for the summer and fall time frame. We talked about the paving of 14th Street from Euclid to Campus, 13th Street from Euclid to Campus, 22nd Street from Mountain to Euclid. There’s a number of slurry projects in the downtown area and up in the Colonies. Those are projects that are planned for the summertime. The capital improvement team does storm drain improvements. We are now finishing up our rehab of our water treatment plant in front of San Antonio Dam.”
With regard to “land development and transportation,” Hoerning said, “Through new projects that come into the city, we are responsible for making sure the development mitigates any growth-related activities, and so plans and specs are reviewed and approved through our department and also transportation-related permits are issued. We have utility services. We serve turnkey water services to 19,000 customers within the city of Upland. We repair the water main leaks found. We’re constantly taking water quality samples and we’re also monitoring the system on a seven day basis through our telemetry system, which allows us to see how high are our reservoirs or how low our reservoirs are, what pumps are on, what pump stations are running, things of that nature. We also have meter reading services and distribution repairs. We also have environmental services. A lot of the city customers don’t realize we have an old landfill in town, so part of our regulatory requirements are that we continue to monitor the groundwater and monitor methane gas that is generated by that landfill as it continues to age. We also have staff that goes out to regulate commercial and industrial users and what they put into our sewer system so it doesn’t impact the treatment plant or our collection system in a negative manner.”
With regard to “sewer services” she said, “We have a small group of people that clean our main sewer trunk lines throughout the city. We try to get through the entire city once every year. You can see some flow monitoring and improvements. For trash collection services we use Burrtec Waste Industries, but also the city runs a household hazardous waste program on Saturday from 9 to 2, where residents can bring their electronic waste, their old paint cans that still have paint, their gas cans that still have fluid but is no longer usable, fluorescent light bulbs, all those kind of things to include medical waste. We also give away mulch to our residents. For emergency response we’re available when the city has windstorms and rain events. We prepare in advance when we have advance notice and then we respond during the event and after the event.”
Of those registering complaints about Hoerning, none made complaints about her skill level or qualifications. Rather, the gist of the objections were to her work ethic and what was characterized as her unwillingness to carry out the more demanding assignments which justified her quarter of a million dollar per year compensation package.
Upland City Manager Rod Butler this week told the Sentinel that in her role as public works director, Hoerning functions as “both the administrator of the department and as an engineer,” and he suggested she was doing an exemplary job at both.
In addition to her administrative role over the division as a whole, Butler said, she had also taken up the administrative duties formerly carried out by retired assistant public works director Acquanetta Warren, who left the city last year, as well the work of the city’s water and wastewater division manager, which position is also currently vacant. Thus, suggestions that there is something lacking in her work ethic or that she does not have a full work load are entirely unfounded, Butler said.
Advocates of belt tightening and economies, such as councilman Bozar cannot have it both ways, Butler said. If the city reduces its payroll and achieves economies in that fashion, those belt-tightening advocates cannot assert that the city has no need of qualified, highly refined expertise when the time for project planning and management presents itself, Butler maintained. He said that he was personally in favor of eliminating specialty positions such as engineers whose presence at City Hall is not constantly in demand but said this means that the city is temporarily understaffed in terms of engineering personnel once energetic projects are initiated because it has shed itself of staff engineers and inspectors as part of City Hall’s overall downsizing. Butler said that when money does come available for certain capital improvement projects, there is a need for engineering expertise and the most sensible, logical and cost efficient way of meeting that gap is through the hiring of consultants.
Butler said he valued Hoerning as “an excellent public employee” and he considered the exacting public scrutiny of her performance “very distasteful.”
Assistant city manager Jeannette Vagnozzi contrasted the public perception that Hoerning was not carrying out the full complement of her duties with her observation that “Rosemary often works after 6 p.m. and on Fridays.”
In Upland, city offices are closed on Friday.
By Mark Gutglueck