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Tony Konkol to hire leadership consultant to address communication issues in Community Services Department

Oregon City Manager Tony Konkol this week apologized for a series of failures that led to the removal of a healthy walnut tree from public property without the necessary permit and promised that city staff would be working on "corrective" actions to better protect public trees.

"I'm sorry that we did not meet those expectations of the community, as well as the (city) commission, in how we handled this issue," Konkol said. "Through this process, we've heard loud and clear what we did wrong."

Konkol is now directing staff to encourage new alternative methods from the public and private side for tree protection. Oregon City's Public Works Department will be investigating new standards that would encourage saving trees, such as sidewalk grinding when tree roots create cracks and routing sidewalks around larger trunks.

COURTESY PHOTO - Oregon City officials contracted to have valuable black-walnut wood carted off from the municipal pool Aug. 29, although the tree was healthy and required permits weren't obtained.During the Oct. 16 meeting, commissioners and other citizens expressed their appreciation for Konkol's apology and investigation into the Aug. 29 incident. Mayor Dan Holladay said city commissioners will be looking forward to working with their Natural Resource Committee to develop new code to nurture healthy tree canopy in Oregon City. 

"We are moving forward with lessons learned from this experience," Holladay said.

In effort to make tree preservation easier for property owners, City Commission is approving code amendments that remove an arborist-report requirement for a Heritage Tree nomination. The first reading of a revised ordinance for the voluntary Heritage Tree program was approved Oct. 16.

Other potential changes include a city commission review process for proposed cutting of trees on public properties, including trees owned by the city, the school district or the state within city limits.

While the removal itself wasn't a violation of municipal code, the act of removing the tree without a permit was a violation of code that calls for permits clarifying replacement trees in certain cases.

Community Services eventually was successful in applying for tree-removal permits retroactively from the Community Development Department after an initial permit required an insufficient number of replacement trees.

Commissioners said that replacement trees with a 2-inch-diameter trunk, the minimum required by code, aren't big enough for city properties.

Oregon City Community Services Director Phil Lewis, who previously has said that the decision to have the trees cut was his "ultimate decision," was absent from the Oct. 16 meeting. He submitted his resignation letter a couple of weeks after the initial scandal over the tree cutting, explaining that he had accepted a job in California.

Konkol's investigation revealed that Lewis can't be held solely to blame for the fiasco. Oregon City Aquatic and Recreation Manager Rochelle Anderholm-Parsch told Konkol that she felt alternative ideas wouldn't be considered after Denise Conrad, the city's assistant parks and recreation director, repeatedly recommended tree removal at various points during the process.

On Aug. 23, just a week before the tree removal was scheduled, Jonathan Waverly, the city's parks maintenance manager, left for a two-week vacation. Waverly passed along information about the project to a staff member without conveying the need to obtain a permit for the project.

"Obviously, there are some staffing things that need to be addressed," Konkol said.

The city manager said that he will be working with an organizational and leadership consultant to address communication issues identified within the Community Services Department.

Lingering issues include replanting plans for the area where the city removed trees without permits, and a supposedly "urgent" sidewalk repair in front of the Municipal Pool, which wasn't repaired nearly two months after removing the tree that had cracked the sidewalk.

Put in charge of the sidewalk repair, Conrad said that her experience should overrule an expert arborist's report that the tree could survive the repair.

"If this sidewalk is so urgent, then this needs to be fast tracked for a repair," Commissioner Frank O'Donnell said he told Konkol. 

Of the 10 elms remaining at Library Park, three are suffering from Dutch elm disease, and one will have to be removed over the winter, Konkol reported. The other two suffering trees will have trenches dug around them so the disease doesn't spread. Inoculation for the disease is being considered.

Previously cut trees for the 2016 library expansion were used for shelving, and the elm being cut down could be used in the police station under construction. Commissioners agreed that there should be a policy to reuse wood from trees cut on city property.

"The trees belong to the community, and if it has to be removed, the material from it could be something that could be given back to the community, like a sculpture, gavels, tables, whatever," said Commissioner Denyse McGriff.

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