Upland Tree Controversy Intensifies

Upland officials’ hopes that the controversy over the neglect of the trees that many consider to be a centerpiece of the 107-year-old City of Gracious Living might simply subside were dashed when even more of the city’s tree lovers showed up at the Monday May 23 council meeting.
The city stepped into controversy earlier this month when the city council took secretive action at its May 9 meeting that has yet to be fully explicated. That action consisted of the council being provided, in a closed session where the public was not present, with a so-called action report that was authored either by a city consultant or the city attorney. After the council members read the report, all of the copies were collected by top city staff. The council voted in that May 9 closed session, according to city attorney Richard Adams, to “accept” the report.
Precisely what the implication of accepting the report was is not publicly known. The report did pertain, city officials have conceded, to the city’s trees, the so-called urban forest which consists of all order of trees that line both sides of Euclid Avenue, blanket Euclid’s 53-foot wide median and garnish other streets throughout the city. In the days prior to the meeting, city employees had marked in excess of 120 trees with orange dots, a symbol arborists recognize as designating a tree for removal.
Later, during the open public session of the May 9 meeting, Rusty Cushing, a member of Upland’s tree street committee, publicly resigned from that panel,
stating that the marked trees were in fact slated for removal. He said that the street tree committee had been kept in the dark about the plan to remove the trees and he blasted city engineer/public works director Rosemary Hoerning for having long neglected the trees and then moving to irresponsibly remove the trees rather than attempting to save them. An agronomist who has taught horticulture at Cal Poly, Cushing said the trees suffered from neglect rather than disease, and he accused Hoerning of hiring a consultant to provide her with a disingenuous report justifying the removal of the trees. He said the tree committee and the Upland population at large included professional arborists whose assessment of the trees’ conditions contradicted the conclusion of the city’s consultant.
During the ensuing two weeks, city officials expressed dismay at the adverse publicity and press attention that resulted from Cushing’s broadside. In what was apparently an attempt to backpedal, city officials began removing or painting over some of the orange dots. Word went out that rather than removing somewhere between 120 and 180 trees, the plan was actually to take out just 76 of them, a mere 2.17 percent of 3,500 trees growing along Euclid or in its median in Upland.
At the May 23 meeting, Cushing returned. This time he was accompanied by a bevy of others who let the city council know they were upset at the city’s action. City officials attempted to martial the defense that they, rather than the trees or the city’s residents, were the victims in the situation. They were victimized, city officials suggested or even directly stated, by “rumor and misinformation.”
Upland resident William King cut right to the heart of that defense. “Rumors get started when things don’t get discussed,” said King.
This brought a mea culpa, of sorts, from city manager Rod Butler. “We made a tactical error,” Butler said. “We marked the trees with the infamous orange dots. We moved too quickly on that and left ourselves open for misinformation to get out there.”
Councilwoman Debbie Stone said, “We brought all this drama on ourselves,” though she said there might be some basis for the secrecy, since the report allegedly pertained to liability that, presumably, existed because of the deterioration of the trees and the possibility they or their limbs and branches might fall.
Councilman Glen Bozar and councilwoman Carol Timm bypassed the liability issue, which some residents had suggested was a smokescreen to hide the incompetence of city employees.
“Release the report,” said Bozar. “There’s nothing there that’s a secret. We can rectify it by being more transparent.”
While Cushing and a licensed arborist living in the city, John Ickis, likewise called for transparency, they both suggested that city staff does not want open disclosure. They hinted that the secretiveness had existed because the trees were put in their compromised state as a consequence of incompetence and neglect by city staff.
Ickis suggested the report read and “accepted” by the council in closed session May 9 was deemed secret because it revealed the level of neglect and incompetence.
“Clean up the lies and release the report to the public immediately,” Ickis said.
In his remarks, Cushing told the council what was already known to its members but never previously disclosed to the public: “The city paid $38,000 to hire an arborist to inspect our trees on Euclid,” Cushing said. This was a waste of money, he insisted. “John and I did it for free. How much tree trimming and tree planting could we do for $38,000?”
A management review is in order, Cushing said.
“A great deal of money has been set aside to cut down 121 trees on Euclid Avenue,” Cushing said. “Take that money and spend it on trimming the trees correctly and removing possible liability problems. Save the trees with that money. Do not remove them.”
Cushing laid the blame for the tree debacle at Hoerning’s feet.
Elements deep within City Hall, however, have said that Hoerning was forced into a situation that led to the trees’ neglect and dilapidation. Upon being brought in as public works director/city engineer in 2011, Hoerning was saddled with having Acquanetta Warren as assistant public works director, they said. Hoerning deemed Warren inadequate to that task but could not remove her for what have been described as “political reasons.”
Warren had been on the Fontana City Council from 2002 until 2010, at which point she was elected mayor of that city. As Fontana’s mayor, Warren participated in several joint powers agencies with an impact on Upland, such as SANBAG, the county transportation agency. Warren had also made political alliances with several other politicians, including current and former Upland City Council members and former Upland Mayor John Pomierski. Consigned to having Warren in her department’s second-highest ranking position, Hoerning cast about for a safe place to put her. Leaving Warren in charge of roads and streets as well as the city’s water and sewer divisions was deemed too dangerous, sources at City Hall told the Sentinel. Hence, Warren was given the task of overseeing the city’s trees. Warren functioned, the Sentinel is informed, with virtually no oversight by Hoerning. It was during the last four years, much of it corresponding with California’s drought and Warren’s management of the urban forest, that the trees deteriorated.
Last year, Warren abruptly resigned. There were reports that she had been forced out, terminated or asked to leave but, because it was a personnel issue, the city provided no clarification. Nor did Warren consent to explain the reason for her sudden departure.
Hoerning this week told the Sentinel she did not feel comfortable discussing issues related to the trees or her function as city engineer/public works director with the Sentinel.
Attention to the tree controversy intensified when the Los Angeles-based television stations KCAL 9/CBS 2 did a report on the matter on Tuesday, May 24.

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