By John Schaffner
Speakers lined up in the Atlanta City Council chambers Aug. 18 to offer their protests over the sudden and unexplained firing July 29 of the city’s senior field arborist, Tom Coffin.
Councilwoman Mary Norwood put forth a council resolution to request and authorize “an independent audit of the arborist division of the Bureau of Buildings, Department of Planning and Community Development.”
E-mail messages exchanged between Bureau of Buildings director Ibrahim Maslamani and his boss, Steven Cover, in which Cover directs Maslamani to “stick with our plan” and “give Luz (Borrero, deputy chief operating officer for the city) a heads up,” emerged as part of the drama surrounding Coffin’s firing.
With all that, the fate of Coffin, his job at the city and the future impact of the city’s tree ordinance remain unclear.
In an Aug. 16 note to supporters, Coffin said, “I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic at this point. Much depends on the independence and integrity of the HR (city Human Resources Department) officer assigned to the case, Al Elder. He appears to be conducting a thorough investigation.”
Coffin reported that Elder “has agreed to look into the ‘plan’ referenced by Commissioner Cover in his email to Mr. Maslamani, as well as to include Luz Borrero in his interview schedule.”
Coffin said he does not know when or if Elder “will issue a report or, if he does, whether it will be available to either the public or to me.”
Coffin added: “Elder’s suggestion of a meeting between Cover, Maslamani, my supervisor Ainsley Caldwell and me has not materialized.”
Buckhead and northeast Atlanta neighborhood leaders and environmental activists are unhappy about the sudden firing of Coffin and question whether the only “cause” for his dismissal might be that Coffin did his job too well in enforcing the city’s tree protection ordinance. His activities often resulted in levying significant penalties on established developers and well-placed residents.
The only thing that is known about his firing is that it was not related to city budget cuts. Coffin was simply told, “Your services are no longer required by the city.”
Coffin said that under the state open-records law he has requested documents related to the “plan.”
He said he also asked for additional access to documents. “When the city responded to my original request, they sent me a bill for 577 pages. When I went to review them the first time, I was told that they had been ‘sent upstairs’ for further review. The next day I was allowed to view 134 pages. I have asked them to produce the other 423 documents.”
Coffin said Elder told him he was assigned to the investigation at the request of the mayor. He told Coffin he is the investigator, not the decision-maker.
“He seemed to be competent and professional, but past experience with HR does not make me optimistic,” Coffin said.
He said that after sending Elder the e-mail string between Cover and Maslamani, “asking him to include the ‘plan’ in his investigation and Luz Borrero in his interview schedule, he responded that he would do both. Then a few minutes later he sent an e-mail saying that he wanted to recall that earlier message.”