Oregon City parks director resigns after city felled 350-year-old tree
This article has been updated
Phil Lewis, Oregon City's community services director since September 2016, handed in his resignation last week.
Lewis was a key player in an ongoing scandal over two large public trees that were cut down Aug. 29 despite an arborist's various recommendations providing options to save them. One of the trees was believed to have been 350 years old.
Lewis said that it was his "ultimate decision" to have the trees logged and has acknowledged that mistakes were made.
Oregon City's elected officials expressed their frustration at Lewis' decision at a public meeting on Sept. 4, when outraged citizens packed City Hall. Even Mayor Dan Holladay, consistently an opponent of regulating trees on private property, told Lewis he should have thought about the high value of the white oak and black walnut wood at the swimming pool that he let a contractor cart away. Wood logged for a recent library expansion was used in public benches and shelving for books.
"This has been a pretty disastrous failing," Holladay said. "You should be aware of the community we have here and should understand how upset people would get when they read that arborist report and it said there were ways to preserve the tree."
City Commissioner Frank O'Donnell pointed out to Lewis that the arborist made clear that the healthy 100-year-old black walnut tree would survive root cutting for nearby sidewalk repair.
"I've been so sorely disappointed in what happened, and we can't undo it," O'Donnell said. "It could have been such an easy resolution to do something simple with that sidewalk."
City officials are considering ordinances to establish additional protections for Oregon City's trees, including a City Commission review process for public trees proposed for removal. An arborist-report requirement to nominate heritage trees is expected to be removed to ease citizen designation of trees on their private property. Oregon City meets the Arbor Day Foundation's minimum standards for Tree City USA status by having a community tree ordinance and spending at least $2 per capita on urban forestry.
"We have an obligation as a Tree City to go up, over and beyond the call of duty with regard to trees in our community and to make sure that every effort is taken to preserve trees," Commissioner Denyse McGriff said at the Sept. 4 meeting. "We belong to the whack-and-chop club, and I'm just embarrassed."
Adding to the frustration with losing trees is the fact that the trees were removed from city property without permits at the direction of city staff. As reported in recent news coverage, Oregon City has become compliant with its own municipal code by applying for tree-removal permits retroactively.
However, not previously reported was the Planning Department's later determination that the initial retroactive permit was invalid. Denise Conrad, the city's assistant parks and recreation director, submitted the initial retroactive permits for the two trees to Oregon City planner Pete Walter, who approved the permits despite the zoning of the site requiring that tree removal obtain Site Plan and Design Review approval.
Laura Terway, who oversees both the planning and building departments in Oregon City, wrote that planting of four trees was required to replace the black walnut, because the tree was 30 inches in diameter and located within a construction area.
"We have reviewed the tree removal approvals and subsequently revoked and reissued the permits," Terway wrote. "The rationale for issuing the permit was not correct, and we were missing a condition of approval related to the mitigation plan. My sincere apologies."
McLoughlin Neighborhood Association Chair Cameron McCredie said at the Sept. 4 public meeting that he believes there's a member of the city's Community Services Department under Lewis' supervision who should be transferred, but Holladay interrupted McCredie's comment by saying that personnel matters shouldn't be discussed.
On Sept. 6, Oregon City launched an internal investigation into the decision-making process that led to the tree-cutting scandal. According to documents this newspaper obtained through a public-records request, an initial email concerning the black walnut tree came to Conrad from Oregon City Aquatic and Recreation Manager Rochelle Anderholm-Parsch after a citizen alerted officials to the sidewalk tripping hazard in June.
Anderholm-Parsch noted that a child reportedly had skinned a knee and asked Conrad about having the sidewalk repaired, saying nothing about tree removal.
"Remembering how this was handled in the past, I believe there were arrangements made by you and/or (Building Facilities Maintenance Specialist) Anne (Crandall) to have a contractor prepare the sidewalk," she wrote to Conrad.
Oregon City officials say there is no timeline for completing the investigation and have indicated that they might withhold the report from public disclosure, citing a state law allowing for redacting documents in cases involving "personnel discipline action, or materials or documents supporting that action." This newspaper has requested the document nonetheless, since the law states that exempting such a document from disclosure would be illegal in cases when "public interest requires disclosure."
Moving to job in California
In a Sept. 23 letter, Lewis resigned from his position effective Friday, Nov. 1, to accept a new role as parks/recreation director with the city of Rocklin, California, a position that makes $135,000-$172,000 annually.
"I am so proud of what the Community Services Department has accomplished and the work that is done every single day to improve the livability of our community for residents of Oregon City," Lewis wrote in a Sept. 25 news release. "I have truly enjoyed my time in Oregon City and will miss the daily interactions with citizens, our community partners and the amazing staff."
City Manager Tony Konkol expressed appreciation for Lewis' service in the news release, citing his work recently obtaining $391,119 in Oregon Lottery dollars to develop an open lawn area, a children's nature play area, enhance a natural drainage-way, add a looped accessible pathway, picnic tables, benches and a group picnic shelter at Filbert Run Park.
"Phil Lewis has given three years of valuable service to Oregon City and brought many projects to fruition including the Ermatinger House re-opening, beginning the Tyrone S. Woods Memorial Park, revitalizing Latourette Park and recently securing grant funding for park development at Filbert Run Park. We wish him and his family all the best in his new endeavor," Konkol wrote.
Lewis brought 20 years of public-sector experience in parks and recreation to Oregon City. Oregon City's community services director oversees the city's pool, Pioneer Adult Community Center, a 55-acre cemetery, 37 parks and unique historical features like the Ermatinger House, which recently was renovated.
Lewis previously worked for the city of Portland's Parks Bureau, Portland Public Schools and, most recently, as the executive director for the Northern Wasco County Parks & Recreation District. He has a master's degree in parks, recreation and tourism management from North Carolina State University and a bachelor's degree in public policies and administration from Eastern Oregon University.
This fall, Oregon City officials plan to begin recruiting for a new director of community services, which has a salary range of $102,324-$127,776.
Editor, Clackamas Review/Oregon City News
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This article has been updated from its original version online to correct the name of the department Phil Lewis oversees and the types of services Laura Terway's department oversees.
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