Palo Alto officials have launched an internal investigation into the Public Works Department to establish who was responsible for the hasty removal of 63 trees on California Avenue last month and how the embarrassing clearcutting operation was allowed to happen, City Manager James Keene said Monday night.
The investigation is part of the city's response to last month's clearcutting of holly oaks along California Avenue an operation that surprised the City Council and enraged many residents.
The council Monday night unanimously approved staff recommendations to increase public outreach for the streetscape plan; establish a review process for other aspects of the plan; and create policies to make sure future projects would have adequate public outreach and city approvals.
But several council members argued that the probe into what went wrong Sept. 14 should be turned into a full-scale examination of "Public Works Department culture."
Keene said the removal of the holly oaks on California Avenue was a major "breakdown" and said the staff has commenced an internal review to establish how the process failed and who was responsible. He also acknowledged, after questioning by Councilman Larry Klein, that the investigation will look at the role of both low- and high-level Public Works employees.
"It seems to me too often in organizations the lowest ranking person gets all the blame," Klein said. "Supervisors somehow escape.
"I'm concerned that your investigation takes into account people up the chain of command."
Klein also asked whether "there was something in the department's culture" that would allow one of more employees to be "so far out and violating our department policies."
Councilman Pat Burt also said he was concerned about the culture within the department, which he said was prone to supporting predetermined outcomes without soliciting adequate public input.
He cited as an example the department's resistance to having the Planning and Transportation Commission review the city's capital improvement program, as called for in the municipal code.
"There has seemed to be a pattern of the Public Works Department being less fully engaged and not embracing input from the community, or even the advisory commissions, to the degree we'd like to have in the city," Burt said.
But Councilman John Barton disagreed. He said the public and the council has "tremendously overreacted' to the tree removal. He denounced the public's hostile e-mails and some residents' calls for public humiliation of the workers responsible for the clearcutting.
Barton cautioned his colleagues against overreacting and argued that doing so would be a disservice to city workers.
"We want to be a city on the cutting edge of issues," Barton said, with no hint of irony. "We want to be a city that's efficient and has an entrepreneurial staff.
"We've cut off our nose to spite our face," he added.
Keene said the investigation would examine at all levels of the chain of command, but warned that reacting too harshly may hinder staff from exercising initiative in the future. He also cautioned that "the edict" or "the stick" might not accomplish the needed changes.
"We had some systemic process breakdowns, without question, or else this wouldn't have happened," Keene said. "I do worry about striking the right balance between establishing right standards and culture in an organization versus having a bunch of bureaucratic proscriptions to guard against someone coloring outside the lines.
"It could create a freezing or a chilling effect on how people respond to issues or take initiative."
Glenn Roberts, director of the Public Works Department, led off the Monday night discussion by publicly apologizing to the council and the public for the hasty clearcutting of the trees, which he called "unacceptable" and "wrong." He said the Sept. 14 tree removal was not indicative of how the department usually conducts business.
"I feel horrible about that," Roberts said. "I'm embarrassed about what happened.
"I'm not sure I have the words to describe exactly how I feel about that, but it was horrible to have that happen in a manner in which it did."
The new public-outreach plan includes a community meeting on the streetscape project Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Escondido School Auditorium, 890 Escondido Road. The Architectural Review Board is scheduled to hear a presentation on the project on Oct. 15, and the Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to review it on Oct. 28.
The plan would then come back to the council for review and possible approval on Nov. 16.
A handful of residents attended the meeting to voice their concerns over the tree removal. They urged the council to include the public in the process. Fred Balin, a resident in the nearby College Terrace neighborhood, recommended that all meetings related to the project be videotaped and suggested an election on California Avenue to determine what type of trees should be planted.
Other residents referred to the pain and trauma neighborhood residents have undergone since the city cut the trees. Councilman Sid Espinosa said the community's reaction to the tree removal has convinced him that this is an issue the council should carefully evaluate.
"When hundreds of people write in a state of rage and devastation and not because of a NIMBY issue it causes me to step back and think it is something that's worth the broad-based public conversation we have had here," Espinosa said.