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Santa Monica to Overhaul Urban Forestry Program after Allegations Funds Were Misused

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

By Jorge Casuso

April 25, 2013 -- The City of Santa Monica will restructure its urban forestry division and revisit its contract with it arborist after an internal investigation found there was room for improvement, top City officials told the Urban Forest Task Force Wednesday night.

But officials stressed that the two-month investigation failed to turn up “indications of fraud or malfeasance,” charges made by Robin Beaudry, the City’s community forest supervisor, to City officials and task force members. The charges were outlined in a letter sent by Beaudry Monday to the LA County District Attorney's Office.

The investigation found that the City’s Urban Forestry Program is “driven largely by a high level of public involvement” and “would benefit from improved contract management and accountability,” a report presented to the task force concluded.

City Manager Rod Gould announced that after reviewing the findings, the City would transfer the Urban Landscaping Program from the Department of Community and Cultural Services to the Department of Public Works and move to fill top positions that are vacant.

City officials, Gould added, also would “take a hard look at the contract” with the city’s contractor, West Coast Arborists, Inc. (WCA), conduct an audit that would “review for overcharging” and, if that is the case, “seek repayment.”

“This is a big wake-up call for us,” Gould told the task force. “We were not practicing proper contract management. Things got a little lax here, and we’ve got to tighten it up.

“The urban forest needs attention,” Gould added. “It needs management. We need to inventory which trees need to be replaced.”

In his letter to the DA's office Beaudry complained that “public funds had been misused” and that many of the trees recently planted in the beachside city needed to be replaced.

Beaudry estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the trees planted by WCA were improperly planted over the past five years, are “root defective and will never reach maturity.”

“I have performed root crown excavations and inspections of 468 trees planted by WCA,” Beaudry wrote, “and rarely have I found a specimen that meets the minimum standards for root quality and proper planting depth as required by the Contract Specifications and the Urban Forest Master Plan Standards and Specifications.

“A conservative estimate for replacing just the trees planted in the last 5 years with high quality, defect-free, nursery stock exceeds $3,000,000,” he concluded.

But City officials said they have found no evidence to support Beaudry’s charges that “public funds had been misused” nor that there was a “pattern of abuse (that) had gone on for years and included WCA invoices that were submitted and paid although there was no evidence that the work was done.”

Andrew R. Trotter, vice president of WCA, said that the company follows standard industry procedure, that the trees that needed replacing were the exception, not the rule, and were “nothing you wouldn’t expect in the industry.”

He added that the City’s policy of diversifying the urban forest was at the root of some of the problems.

“Maybe the City did some experimentation with species that didn’t fit the environment,” Trotter said. A specific species may not be available “in the kind of condition we would like. We can only buy what’s available on the market.”

Task Force member Grace Phillips said the blame was misplaced and questioned Trotter’s suggestion that City staff could check the stock.

“I think it’s inappropriate,” Phillips said. “That’s what the contractor is paid for… to supply us with good stock.”

Trotter said he would work with the City and acknowledged that “we need to tighten our policies and procedures.”

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