Former Atlanta senior arborist Tom Coffin filed an “intent to sue” letter Dec. 15 with the city for wrongful dismissal under Georgia’s Whistleblower Act.
Coffin asserts that he was fired for raising concerns while he was serving as field supervisor about the failure of the Arborist Division in Atlanta’s Bureau of Buildings to enforce the city’s tree preservation laws.
In the weeks before his dismissal in July, Coffin said, he was pressing his supervisor, arboricultural manager Ainsley Caldwell, to accept disciplinary charges he was making against two subordinate field arborists for official decisions they made that violated the code of conduct of the city and the standard operating procedures of the division.
On July 14, Coffin claims to have given Caldwell an analysis of six months of field arborist activity that “demonstrated a nearly total lack of enforcement activity on the part of his subordinates.”
In the wake of those events and despite his recent elevation to the supervisor position, Coffin said, he was “fired without warning or explanation” on July 29.
“It is deeply disturbing that I am forced into court for trying to do my job,” Coffin said. “I was mistreated by an unjust and illegal firing. More importantly, however, the citizens of Atlanta are being mistreated and shortchanged by the Arborist Division and the Bureau of Buildings. Atlanta’s tree protection ordinance is now a dead letter. The law is not being enforced. The city has given a free pass to field arborists to act like potted plants, doing nothing to enforce the law that they were hired to implement.”
Coffin served on the initial Tree Conservation Commission of the city, formed in 1997. He chaired the ordinance rewrite committee that wrote the basic legislation that transformed the Arborist Division with the hiring of four field arborists in 2000. Coffin accepted one of the field arborist positions at that time. He was promoted to the new senior arborist position in October 2007. His firing in July spawned citizen protests and news coverage.
In his “ante litem” notice letter, addressed to Mayor Shirley Franklin, Coffin attorney Brian Spears writes that “Georgia law prohibits cities from firing their employees in retaliation for disclosing violations of law.”
The letter continues: “Dr. Coffin seeks re-employment, compensation for lost salary and other economic damages and for all other injury, including loss of reputation and emotional harm.”
Coffin said that if an affirmative response from the city is not forthcoming within the mandatory 30-day waiting period, he will initiate litigation in January.
— John Schaffner