A confidential personnel report cites multiple errors by several city staff members for a failure in public outreach in the removal of 63 mature trees on California Avenue in September 2009.
The executive summary of a longer report prepared early in 2010 was e-mailed to the Weekly and other newspapers by a "John Doe."
City Manager James Keene told the Weekly that he had not seen the report until today, and that it was "not an authorized release of what appears to be a draft report." He said officials wanted to be sure it was "complete and signed and accurate."
Assistant City Attorney Donald Larkin said it is the city's policy not to release personnel reports naming lower-level city employees.
Ironically, the errors cited related to failures in public awareness and outreach, not whether the trees should have been removed wholesale. A plan to replace the trees had been in the works for several years, but in a phased rather than all at the same time. It is unclear from the executive summary whether the extent of the tree removal was known by more than a few staff members.
The document listed Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie, Planning Director Curtis Williams and Senior Project Engineer Karen Bengard as having made decisions that set the tree debacle in motion -- which created a huge public outcry.
The human-resources department, city attorney's office and city manager's office kept the report confidential, according to a follow-up e-mail sent to the Weekly by "John Doe."
Sandra Blanch, assistant director of human resources, told the Weekly that she wrote the report in early 2010 for human resources Director Russ Carlsen. The report does not say what, if any, discipline took place for the errors.
Palo Alto city engineers "failed to thoroughly perform their duties as established in their job descriptions," a fact-finding team looking into the matter wrote. The team consisted of Trina Glanville, an HR administrator, and Jane Ratchye, the Utilities assistant director, with help from Blanch and Marcie Scott, an HR administrator.
The report criticized senior engineers for failure to conduct public outreach, to properly oversee staff and to follow contract and code-compliance policies.
But the report states project managers were under stress because of a large library-bond project was being reviewed by the City Council. As a result, the California Avenue treescape and redesign project fell through the cracks.
In addition to pinning responsibility on Woojae Kim, an engineer in the Public Works department, the report pointed to other senior staff, including Bengard, who reportedly did not follow through on the project's oversight or outreach. Kim, meanwhile, failed to follow instructions regarding a 14-day delay on the tree removal, which would have allowed for an appeal of the plan by members of the public, and for failing to provide adequate public notice of the removals.
Blanch said the document was internal and would not have been made public because it includes personnel information and can't be disclosed.
But the report does show several decisions that led to a breakdown in public outreach and notification of high-level staff that might have been able to prevent the clear-cutting.
Staff largely allowed decision-making by one segment of the public -- the California Avenue Area Development Association (CAADA)-- conducting meetings and tailoring the project along the lines of CAADA's direction, according to the report.
Staff could have sought a full Architectural Review Board review of the project, which would have provided further opportunity for public and official scrutiny, according to the report. But city planners viewed the streetscaping project as "minor" after a streetlight-replacement component was eliminated, and thus it did not need a full Architectural Review Board review.
Steve Emslie, deputy city manager, also decided the revision to the project -- focusing on trees and not streetlights -- would not need a city manager's report, which typically would be read by the City Council. Instead, the revision to the plan was noted in the Capital Improvements Program budget. The budget is also read by the City Council, but is hundreds of pages long.
"This investigation revealed that there was no outreach plan established, resulting in staff failing to follow through on a department management directive," the report found.
Emslie said he would not be able to comment on "an unattributed and unsigned e-mail I have not seen. I would be very happy to comment on the investigation once it's released by the city."
Public Works Director Glenn Roberts did instruct Bengard to conduct public outreach on the tree re-landscaping project and "there was discussion of meeting the week of Aug. 17, 2009, to plan the outreach strategy," the report found.
Senior engineers are supposed to manage contracts, code compliance and public relations and to coordinate planning within the department, with external agencies and with the public, the report said.
But Bengard and Project Engineer Debra Jacobs, who took over for Bengard when Bengard went on vacation, told investigators they were occupied with preparing documents for the Library Bond project, which was to be discussed by the council on Sept. 14, 2009 -- the same day the trees were cut down, the report noted.
Bengard had directed Woojae Kim to conduct the public outreach, but she did not follow through on proper supervision, the report said. Kim planned to distribute a flyer on Sept. 3. He had been instructed to send out a public notice at least 10 days prior to the tree removal.
Bengard sent an e-mail to Kim saying she wanted to hold a meeting "to make sure we're all on the same page," after making revisions to the flyer, but she instead left for vacation on Sept. 8.
Bengard failed to inform senior management about the impending tree removal, according to the report. Assistant Public Works Director Mike Sartor came into the office Sept. 4 on a scheduled vacation day to receive an update from Bengard prior to her vacation on pending projects. But "the California Avenue project doesn't come up," he said.
Bengard said during the investigation that the high workload was an issue and she was focused on the larger library-bond project, which she was managing. During her absence, Jacobs took a "hands off approach" with the project, as she was unaware of the details and was consumed with the library project, the report noted.
Jacobs also said she forgot to tell Sartor about the tree project.
Bengard said she assumed internal meetings were being set up while she was out of town, since Kim and Elizabeth Ames, senior engineer, and Kate Rooney, the project manager the previous San Antonio Road rebuilding and tree-removal project, were brought in to help with outreach.
Rooney, however, said the outreach effort for San Antonio Road would not work for California Avenue because San Antonio took a full year to plan and included eight public meetings. There were just three weeks for outreach on the California project. Rooney drafted a notification flyer but "due to failed feedback" from public works staff she could not finalize the flyer.
Ames had recommended holding off distribution of the flyer until the outreach group had feedback from the public-works administration and the city manager's office. But Kim "proceeded ahead without heeding to these recommendations," the report found.
"Proper supervision would have included specific direction from Karen while she was on vacation. Karen should have given specific direction to Debra if she was going to be in charge or to direct Woojae to not begin the project until public outreach was thoroughly completed," investigators concluded.
Staff worked with the California Avenue Area Development Association (CAADA) on outreach, conducting meetings and tailoring the project along the lines of CAADA's direction, according to the report. (CAADA has since been dissolved as an organization and replaced with a Chamber of Commerce committee on California Avenue issues.)
When CAADA reviewed plans for streetlight options as part of the overall streetscape revitalization, the board decided to focus on tree replacement instead. Assistant Public Works Director Mike Sartor told Bengard that staff "may need to get back to Council on the revised scope of this CIP (capital improvement project)."
In April 2009, however, Bengard met with Emslie to discuss how to adjust the project, the report said. It was decided to revise the project's description in the CIP budget rather than prepare a separate informational city manager's report highlighting the changes, the report said.
The streetscape project needed to go through the full Architectural Review Board process while the street lights were still part of the plan. But in an April 20 e-mail, Planner Clare Campbell said that she believed that if CAADA was amenable to a staff-level review of the rest of the project items (including the trees), "That's the way to go."
Staff also did not view the tree replacement as a major project, according to the report. Curtis Williams, director of planning and community environment, agreed with Campbell that "elements of the project were not sufficient to be a 'major' project requiring full ARB review, as it did not involve street-light replacement, the tree replacement and other elements (trash cans, newspaper racks, benches and kiosk) were minor in nature," Campbell noted.
Williams could not be immediately reached for comment on the report or sequence of events.
There is no indication that staff questioned replacing all the trees at one time, despite a recommendation that 29 trees be retained after a 2007 tree survey determined the trees' condition, according to the report. But staff followed CAADA's direction to "bite the bullet and replace all the trees now," after the streetlights were taken out of the project, according to the report.
The Public Works Department outlined a series of corrective actions for the future, including requiring all project construction notices to proceed to be approved by Sartor. Projects would be tracked on a spreadsheet, including public-outreach dates, board, commission and council meetings and staffing so members would know who was assigned to each aspect of a project.
Monthly meetings would be held to review project progress with staff, and all projects would be reviewed with the planning department.
A recommendation for discipline involving staff was to be addressed separately, the report stated.