The Curtatone Clear Cut

More than a year after the surprise clear-cut of Beacon Street in Somerville, the Curtatone administration continues to stall and delay rather than taking action to provide accountability and closure.

Not Responsible

Video of the November 29th meeting of the Public Utilities and Public Works shows the latest steps in this frustrating story.

At about 37:40, the committee takes up item 206959, an order That the Administration deem Newport Construction and Northern Tree to be “not considered responsible bidders or offerers” for 5 years, reflecting their performance on the Beacon St Reconstruction..

More than a month ago, on October 25, the city solicitor opined that the city is able to impose this sort of limitation. Strangely the administration chose not take any particular action on the matter at that time, as if the Aldermen were asking the question for informational or entertainment purposes.

The minutes of the prior meeting are unambiguous:

Alderman Scott asked how the Purchasing Department would be aware if the city had a problem with a particular contractor. Chairman White pointed out that the city would have to lay a foundation, perhaps by having memo/letter on file, in order to disqualify a low bidder due to previous problems.

Alderman Scott’s motion that the Administration prepare a memo for the Purchasing Department deeming Newport Construction and Northern Tree to be “not considered responsible bidders or offerers” for a period of 5 years, in reflection of their performance on the Beacon St Reconstruction, was approved.

On Thursday, however, city staff did not bring this memo. Instead, they brought excuses based on a seemingly intentional misunderstanding of the request.

The Aldermen were forced to repeat themselves, almost exactly word for word, as to the result they are trying to achieve. The order remains in committee for another month.

Swept under the rug

At the end of that discussion, at 41:39 in the video, Alderman JT Scott inquires on the status of an item that was marked “work complete” in the Committee’s previous meeting – the idea of imposing a fine or a citation against the contractors for the value of the trees that were lost.

205010: That the City Solicitor advise this Board about whether the way in which the Beacon Street trees were taken down was compliant with state law and the city’s Tree Ordinance.

Items #205010, 205498, 206440, 206594, 206707 were discussed together.

Mr. Grossfield reviewed the documents he submitted for item 206594 and said that they would be sent to both the general and sub-contractors, rather than have the city lay the responsibility on just one of them. The complaint is ready to go as soon as city staff comes up with an amount.

On Thursday, the Administration’s representative admitted that the citations had not yet been sent. He did not know when that might happen. In response to the Aldermen’s surprisingly patient questions about the causes of the delay, the city official said that he was not expecting to have to discuss this matter.

This is, of course, because the order was closed a month ago with the assurance that the letters would be sent. The Aldermen were also not expecting to discuss the matter, because they were assured that it would be carried forward.

Of course, all of this is bit disingenuous, since both Alderman Scott and myself have been emailing members of the administration at least weekly for an update on the matter.

By 43:50 in the video, the committee has amended the order yet again to be sure that whoever takes up the matter in the next legislative session (2019) will be reminded to ask these questions yet again.

Relentless persistence

The fact that we have any facts at all are due to resident activism, FOIA requests, and the tenacity and patience of our Aldermen. This issue has come up at more committee and board meetings than I can easily count.

Based on FOIA requests:

The city administration, in various offices including Urban Forestry, Strategic Planning, and Law has found that trees were improperly removed, that our city ordinances and state law were not followed, and that the city can issue fines and penalize these contractors for breaking our laws.

All that remains is to pull the trigger.

A “Tree City”

Each of these bits of information has been extracted piecemeal, with our Aldermen playing a frustrating game of legislative whack-a-mole with the Curtatone administration. The video above shows a typical interaction on this matter.

Through all of this, it has become clear to me that the city administration, from the very top, has a strong desire to move on from this matter without any penalties or accountability for the wrongdoing.

If this is how we treat our trees in this “tree city” of ours, I have to wonder what else is getting swept under the rug under the Curtatone administration.

Tree Hearings for Somerville Ave and Prospect Hill

There were tree hearings for work to be done on Somerville Ave and Prospect Hill this past Wednesday. I attended, along with a number of new friends and neighbors.

I came away surprised and impressed at the difference between these projects and our experience with the Beacon Street reconstruction. The city staff did a great job. They presented not only the work to be done, but also the effort that had gone into planning the work in a thoughtful and balanced way. They showed site maps and street cross sections, and explained the history that led to the necessity to access and replace various services.

As I said in my comments at the hearing – my first experience with this process started with October’s surprise clear-cut of Beacon. Because of that, I do not have a lot of trust or faith in our system. This hearing was a beginning, for me, of building trust with the city around how we plan and execute these projects.

The next steps in the process are governed by Chapter 87 of state law. Because objections were raised, the city staff will now make a recommendation to Mayor Curtatone, who will decide either to proceed or to change the plans.

I still believe that some changes are in order:

  • The city needs to place even more emphasis on preserving and working around our healthy, mature trees.
  • We should increase the budget for planting new trees to at least match the biomass that we are losing to sickness, construction, and all other causes.
  • We should emphasize continually refreshing our trees, rather than clear-cutting and replanting a street at a time. This will lead to a diversity of age among the trees, meaning that we never have a window like we have now on Beacon, with no mature trees for decades.
  • Wherever possible, the city should manage its own projects. The contrast between this city-led process and the State-led work on Beacon Street was like night and day.