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After Successful Fight, Tree Ordinance Champion Fails to Retain Seat on Task Force
By Jorge Casuso
July 9, 2019 -- One month after the City Council finally took action on the citywide tree ordinance she had long championed, Grace Phillips failed to win reappointment to the Urban Forest Task Force due to an apparent bureaucratic glitch.
Phillips, who had helped lead the task force since its creation a decade ago, had allegedly failed to provide proof of having taken the City's ethics training before seeking reappointment last month.
But emails from City staff indicate Phillips had abided by the deadlines she was given to submit her ethics training certificate and apply for reappointment before the Council voted on June 18.
When she went on vacation early the next morning, Phillips was sure she had complied with the requirements and had been reappointed.
"When I returned, there were all these condolences," Phillips said. "I was like, 'What the heck.'"
Before a vote was cast to fill any of the 31 vacancies on 16 City boards and commissions, the chances that Phillips, along with Arts Commissioner Corin Kahn, would be reappointed had been dashed.
Efforts by his council colleagues to take a more lenient stance failed, and other council members fell in line with McKeown, rejecting Phillips and Kahn.
A month earlier, on May 14, the Council had finally taken the initial step by directing staff to embark on a two-year process that would result in guidelines used to determine which trees on private property are protected.
McKeown, who made the motion, said he had been on a 19-year mission to "save our trees with a tree ordinance" ("Old Sycamore Triggers Citywide Tree Ordinance," May 15, 2019).
"I've been spending all my time trying to get the private tree ordinance passed," Phillips said. "Every year there's a different series of hoops you have to jump through.
"I've been pushing that rock for nearly nine years, and we were just getting to the top of the hill."
Phillips, a professional landscaper, was shocked to find that Santa Monica, which prides itself as being a leader in sustainability, has no ordinance protecting trees on private property.
She notes that between 2005 and 2014, the upscale North of Montana Neighborhood (NOMA) lost 33 percent of its tree canopy.
"Santa Monica has zero tree protections. You can chop any tree down in Santa Monica. In LA you need an arborist's report to remove an Oak or Sycamore tree."
Phillips, who is a lapsed arborist, thinks Santa Monica's ordinance should be modeled on the one adopted by Pasadena, which has seen its tree canopy grow by 9 percent.
She laments that the task force is losing one of the two members with an "institutional memory" -- the other is Tom Cleys -- at a time when the City is finally taking action.
Phillips is also frustrated with what she views as an onerous process for civic volunteers.
She sat through a two-hour internet training she said should have taken 20 minutes, then was told she could no longer use her personal email to submit her signed certificate.
"Thania at the City Clerk said just to apply using your personal email and she will merge your application with your city email later," she wrote.
Assuming everything had been taken care of, Phillips prepared for her out-of-town trip.
When she returned and read the condolences, she asked the City Clerk's office what had happened.
On June 26 she received the following reply.
"The City Clerk’s office was unaware that you were attempting to complete the training or that you were having difficulty with the website," wrote Deputy City Clerk Esterlina Lugo.
"Receiving your certificate the day before the meeting did not permit for our office to include it," Lugo wrote.
The response contradicted the instructions from the Public Landscaping Division.
Those instructions stated that "the City Clerk needs to have your Ethics training certificate by this coming Monday," the day before the meeting.
The deadline for applying for reappointment "is noon on Tuesday," the day of the meeting.
The Lookout asked Phillips why she hadn't applied sooner.
"I did what I was told to do," she said. "I'm a little down about it."
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