By John Schaffner
Buckhead and northeast Atlanta neighborhood leaders and environmentally concerned residents are unhappy about the sudden firing of Tom Coffin, the senior field arborist for the city of Atlanta.
Some question whether the only “cause” that could be cited in the firing would be that Coffin did his job too well in enforcing the city’s tree protection ordinance, likely levying significant penalties on established developers and well-placed residents.
Not long before he was called in by Bureau of Buildings director Ibrahim Maslamani and fired July 29, Coffin had cited a home at 125 Blackland Road, at the corner of Putnam Drive, and levied fines for cash recompense and penalty of $23,150.
He charged the owner of the home in the tony Buckhead neighborhood and the contractor putting up a wall around the home with the illegal destruction of 14 trees totaling 275 diameter inches. The roots on numerous trees had been cut and exposed to grading in the process of digging a trench for the wall.
Coffin was shocked by his firing. He said he received no warnings of any problems with his performance and was not given a reason for the firing, except that Maslamani kept saying, “Your services are no longer required by the city.”
His position, however, was not due to be eliminated as part of the city budget cuts. Money to support the arborists now comes from the Tree Trust Fund, not the General Fund.
When he was called in to meet with supervisor Ainsley Caldwell and Maslamani on July 29, Coffin thought it was for a meeting he had requested to address complaints he lodged against the nonperformance of two subordinate field arborists. In his role as senior field arborist, Coffin supervised three field arborists.
In a letter to Mayor Shirley Franklin, City Council members and tree conservation commissioners, Coffin said he had been trying to address:
• The lack of accountability to the tree protection ordinance expected of his field arborist colleagues in their work of hazard tree evaluations and building permit postings.
• The near-total abdication of enforcement of the tree protection ordinance by his colleagues in terms of corrections notices on construction sites and the imposition of recompense and penalties for the illegal destruction of trees at construction sites or private residences.
The 64-year-old Coffin gave his superiors an analysis of city data that supported his positions.
Coffin alleged the field arborists looked the other way when developers and homeowners illegally removed healthy trees, approved construction sites when violations were obvious and failed to regularly impose fines even for blatant disregard of the law.
His dismissal led to protests to Franklin and other city officials from Buckhead and northeast Atlanta residents who are concerned about the city’s loss of tree canopy. Coffin primarily patrolled Buckhead and northeast Atlanta.
Gordon Certain, the president of the North Buckhead Civic Association, wrote to the mayor: “I have known and worked with Tom since 1998, when he was serving on the Tree Conservation Commission. … I was impressed by Tom’s integrity — he politely told people what he thought was right, not necessarily what they wanted to hear. … I have no idea what precipitated Tom’s dismissal, but believe that the city will be a much poorer place if it is denied his expertise.”
Architect Sheldon Schlegman, who is a former chair of the Tree Commission and active in Neighborhood Planning Unit-A (NPU-A) issues, said that by firing Coffin, his bosses are telling the other arborists not to do anything.
Charlotte Gillis, the environmental affairs chairwoman for the Morningside Lenox Park Association and chairwoman of the Tree Committee for NPU-F, wrote the mayor: “I do not exaggerate when I tell you that I have not seen more exemplary service from a city employee. … Mr. Coffin always upholds the Tree Ordinance, letting neither his personal interest in protecting trees nor the pressure of the development community influence his decisions.
“The level of respect and trust that Mr. Coffin has built among the many citizens of Atlanta who want to protect the environmental quality of their neighborhoods makes me curious as to the true cause for his firing.”
Franklin has asked the Human Resources Department to look into Coffin’s dismissal.
For the text of Tom Coffin’s letter to Mayor Franklin and City Council members, go to www.reporternewspapers.net.