By John Schaffner
The Community Development/Human Resources Committee of the Atlanta City Council added a dimension to the abrupt firing of the city’s senior arborist, Tom Coffin, by approving unanimously Aug. 26 a resolution authorizing an independent audit of the Arborist Division of the Bureau of Buildings.
That action took place amid an atmosphere in which the mayor’s chief operating officer, Gregory Giornelli, and the top leadership of the Department of Planning and Development and its Bureau of Buildings maneuvered to try to stop the action by the committee.
The city’s Legal Department was called to weigh in on the issue, telling the committee it could hear public comment on the “personnel” matter but could not discuss it.
The bulk of the public comment during the Aug. 26 committee session focused on labeling as a “sham” the Human Resources Department’s investigation of Coffin’s firing, a probe ordered by Mayor Shirley Franklin, and on how the city’s tree ordinance is being eroded by lax enforcement in the arborist division.
Meanwhile, according to Coffin, there is little progress in the investigation into his firing July 29, being conducted by Al Elder of the Human Resources Department. Coffin has not been given any reason for his dismissal, except that “the city no longer requires your services.”
Coffin said Planning Commissioner Steven Cover’s “cover is that my firing results from a ‘sensitive personnel issue.’ Sensitive to whom, and sensitive why?”
Coffin said his actions “are and have been open and transparent. I have no objection to airing these ‘sensitive’ issues in whatever forum is available.”
On Aug. 26, the day of the CD/HR committee meeting, Giornelli, the right hand to the mayor, sent his letter to Council President Lisa Borders and all council members to inform them and “the public about the record of the Arborist Division in protecting one of Atlanta’s most precious resources, its tree canopy.”
He then listed five accomplishments of the arborists and said, “The Arborist Division is one of the city’s bigger success stories.” (Read the full text of Giornelli’s letter on Page 7 and Coffin’s Aug. 28 response to Giornelli on Page 8.)
Giornelli never referred to Coffin by name in his letter and said it would be “inappropriate to comment on the circumstances surrounding the employee’s termination” while it is being reviewed by Human Resources.
A day before the CD/HR committee was to consider the resolution calling for the audit of his agency, Ibrahim Maslamani, the director of the Bureau of Buildings and the person who fired Coffin, e-mailed Councilman Jim Maddox, the chairman of the committee, to say that “due to the ongoing investigation by HR, we would like to postpone any public presentations on this issue until such investigation is completed.”
Maddox had suggested that either Cover or Maslamani might want to attend the meeting. Cover opted out, saying he had a medical procedure scheduled for the meeting day.
The committee passed the audit resolution, which now goes before the full council for a vote.
The resolution calls for the council to “request and authorize the City Auditor through the Audit Committee to conduct an independent audit of the Arborist Division of the Bureau of Buildings, Department of Planning and Community Development.”
At-large Councilwoman Mary Norwood of Buckhead initiated the resolution, which was co-sponsored by Anne Fauver, C.T. Martin, Joyce Sheperd, Ivory Young Jr., Cleta Winslow, Ceasar Mitchell and H. Lamar Willis.
In addition to the firing of Coffin, a factor that prompted the resolution was an exchange of e-mail messages between Maslamani and Cover in response to the public outcry over the senior arborist’s firing. Cover told Maslamani to “stick with our plan” and to “give Luz a heads up,” a reference to Luz Borrero, the city’s deputy chief operating officer and Giornelli’s assistant.
That memo exchange infuriated many environmentalists and neighborhood activists in the city, who read the plan to mean that the administration wanted to remove the arborist who was citing the most violators of the tree ordinance in an attempt to weaken enforcement of the ordinance.
Linda Trower, who is on the board of Neighborhood Planning Unit A in north Buckhead, wrote in an e-mail: “The mayor’s investigation is going nowhere as everything is being ‘sent upstairs’ for review.”
She added: “If you want to undermine the Tree Ordinance, fire the arborist enforcing the ordinance and let the remaining arborists continue in their proven paths of lax enforcement, knowing the mayor will uphold the firing and conduct a pseudo investigation.”
Trower said that if changes need to be made in the tree ordinance, “they should be made by the City Council, not by Commissioner Cover, Director Maslamani and Deputy Chief Borrero.”
Following up on the “plan” e-mail, several activists have discovered a memo published by the mayor’s Office of Communication on June 13, 2006, titled “New Leadership Forwards Change in City’s Permitting Process.” The memo cites the launch of a permitting improvement project aimed at decreasing the time it takes to issue a permit by 50 percent by 2007.
“With Atlanta’s population expected to double in the next 25 years, it is critical we meet the demand,” Maslamani said in the text of the memo.
The memo pointed out that Ainsley Caldwell, the city’s arboricultural manager, who was Coffin’s boss, “has created a ‘no trees impacted’ exception that will speed up plan review for certain developments.”
The memo said Maslamani would focus on “strategies to reduce permitting time.”
“It would seem that giving anyone applying for a building permit the opportunity to ‘streamline’ the process by claiming the ‘no trees impacted’ exception not only weakens the tree ordinance but in some cases takes it completely out of play,” Trower wrote in an Aug. 28 e-mail.
Trower pointed out that Borrero, Cover and Maslamani were the committee that streamlined the permitting process.
Referring to a property mentioned in the Aug. 8-21 Buckhead Reporter as one where Coffin levied a $23,800 fine shortly before his firing, the NPU-A board member added: “The property at 125 Blackland Road is an excellent example to cite. The permit read ‘no trees impacted’ and by the time Tom Coffin got to the scene a backhoe had destroyed 14 trees. Sad to say, the fence is in progress. … They paid the fine and drove on.”