To the editor:
The Oct. 3-16 edition of the Buckhead Reporter newspaper contains a front-page article written by John Schaffner, “Chief arborist serves resident with improper arrest citation.” Said article contains a number of inaccuracies and, more important, a false and misleading implication that we have engaged in improper conduct.
The paramount issue relating to the article that involves, or matters to, us is the indisputable fact that a pine tree located on the property of our neighbors Jim and Heather Kercher was dangerously leaning over our property line and over our home. The city of Atlanta issued a permit on Sept. 10, clearly stating that the tree was “hazardous.”
Specifically, as the permit states, the city of Atlanta inspector from the arborist office, J. Bazile, found in part that the tree had “uncorrectable defects severe enough to pose present danger to people or buildings under normal conditions. … The tree leans more severely with increasing height, lean is in the direction of [our house]. … There is evidence of soil heaving on the side of the tree opposite to bow. An independent arborist report was provided [by Lisa Turner, the ISA-certified arborist we hired] and it concurs with two City Arborists who are International Society of Arboriculture (‘ISA’) certified arborists.” Subsequently, the Kerchers had the hazardous tree removed.
There appears to have been some confusion caused by a subsequent inspection of the tree on Sept. 11, conducted by city employee Stanley Domengeaux. Mr. Domengeaux apparently did not realize that a proper permit for removal had been granted the day prior, Sept. 10. Mr. Domengeaux stated that the tree should not be approved for removal. However, Mr. Domengeaux, as clearly stated in the permit, “is not an ISA Certified Arborist.” When Mr. Domengeaux realized a permit had already been issued, he contacted Ainsley Caldwell, the arboricultural manager for the city of Atlanta, to make the final determination. Ainsley Caldwell and J. Bazile returned to inspect the tree on Sept. 12 and confirmed Bazile’s original, Sept. 10 findings that the tree was “hazardous” and needed to be removed. Janell Bazile is an ISA-certified arborist.
It is our belief that our neighbors, Jim and Heather Kercher, initially opposed the removal of the tree from their property. Upon their receipt of the official assessment by the city of Atlanta that the tree was hazardous, they promptly removed the tree, for which we are grateful. Thereafter, however, the city of Atlanta appears to have improperly issued an arrest citation targeting Heather Kercher, leading to the article in the Buckhead Reporter.
The particulars of how an improper arrest citation may have been issued is something about which we have no independent knowledge. However, the article contains several false and misleading statements that have caused harm to us. The specific misrepresentations of the article and a detailed explanation for each are contained below:
1. In the article, on Page 8, Mr. Schaffner quotes the Kerchers as saying, “Their neighbors ‘were unhappy and apparently made calls to Caldwell and Shelby. Somehow that decision was overturned.’ ” The article makes clear that this is a direct reference to us.
(In order to properly respond to this allegation, the identities of Mr. Shelby and Mr. Caldwell are relevant and warrant confirmation. Mr. Shelby is James Shelby, then the deputy commissioner of the Department of Planning and Community Development for the city of Atlanta. Mr. Caldwell, as previously identified, is Ainsley Caldwell, arboricultural manager, city of Atlanta.)
These above-referenced statements, attributed to the Kerchers in the article, are inaccurate and misleading. It is simply false to imply that either of us had the decision of Mr. Domengeaux overturned. In fact, had Mr. Schaffner troubled himself to obtain the facts, he would have learned that the tree had been deemed hazardous by J. Bazile, ISA-certified arborist for the city of Atlanta, on Sept. 10.
2. In the article, on Page 8, Mr. Schaffner writes that in response to the alleged calls, “Caldwell wrote that he had visited 510 Collier Road to ‘provide an independent second opinion. The tree is healthy but hazardous.’ ”
The article continues: “He [Mr. Caldwell] changed the decision of the report to state the tree is healthy but hazardous and it was approved for removal.”
These allegations are false. We filed a proper request for an on-site inspection of the tree on Aug. 29, wherein the hazard posed by the tree was sufficiently described. City arborist Bazile determined the tree to be hazardous on Sept. 10. Mr. Caldwell did not change the decision to state that the tree is healthy but hazardous, but instead merely confirmed that such conditions with respect to the tree existed.
3. The article, on Page 8, attributes a quote to Jim Kercher as saying, “We find it curious that our neighbor, who works for the government, could just make a few calls and have the decisions overturned — especially since he has had many trees removed in the past two years that were perfectly healthy.” The article makes clear that this is a direct reference to us.
During the 24-month period preceding the article’s publication, we had no trees unlawfully removed from our property. Further, trees that have been removed from our property prior were properly permitted, and every procedure required to obtain past permits was strictly followed.
Of particular concern is the article’s harmful quote, attributed to Mr. Kercher, that “we find it curious that our neighbor, who works for the government, could just makes a few calls and have the decisions overturned.” This quote clearly implies some improper effort on our part to obtain the permit. Neither of us is employed by the city of Atlanta, nor do we have any ability to influence city of Atlanta decisions regarding tree inspections.
In total, the article’s representations regarding our conduct in this matter suggest that we somehow behaved improperly. This is absolutely false. At all times, and in every way, we strictly followed the rules and sought to be good neighbors. For your newspaper to suggest otherwise is outrageous and intentionally defaming to our good character and reputation. While the issuance by the city of Atlanta of an arrest citation targeting Heather Kercher well may be an appropriate topic for coverage by your newspaper, that hardly gives you license to print false and defaming allegations about us.
Your newspaper’s wrongful conduct has caused us considerable anxiety and public embarrassment, as we have had to explain to our neighbors that the article’s implications and references to us were incorrect.
Since the article’s publication, we have been assailed by some of our neighbors who took from the article a false belief that we are bad actors. Further, Mr. Vance is a respected federal government attorney whose job could be seriously jeopardized if his superiors believed that he was using his position to bully the city of Atlanta into mistreating the Kerchers, as the article seeks to imply.
Your newspaper’s safeguards to assure journalistic competence and integrity are your business, except when the failure or absence of same cause harm to us.
Travis Vance and Todd Hall