Urban Politics #276: A Tale of Two Trees


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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Sometimes it’s the little things that make me glad to be a public servant.

It was approaching eight o’clock in the evening at the City Council’s Budget Hearing. What once was a chamber packed with over 200 people, now held fewer than a dozen. We were closing in on three hours of citizens pleading their cases. We, as Councilmembers, were trying to figure out how to cut over $20 million from this year’s budget; one that had already been approved. We would be taking things away from people. Which constituency would receive cuts? Our youth, our elderly, our disabled, our neglected neighborhoods, our over taxed local businesses?

One of the last citizens to approach the podium was Tammara Stroud, a Queen Anne resident who had not come as a member of any group, but rather as a lone citizen. With a slight look of befuddlement, she spoke briefly. In a rather matter-of-fact manner, she posed a question to us.

Why was the city giving her a $1,000 that she did not want? It seems that she had planted a couple of ornamental trees in her parking strip about a year ago in celebration of her wedding anniversary. She had received a permit from our Department of Transportation and selected the type of trees from a city approved list.

So where was the problem? As her story unfolded, it turned out that she had received a letter from our Department of Parks informing her that her trees would have to be removed so that a different type of tree could be planted in conformance with an adopted 1986 boulevard tree plan.. In exchange for the inconvenience she would receive a check for a $1,000. She did not want the money; she only wanted her trees. She had been sitting in the audience and listening to all of the critical services that were threatened and she did not feel that this was a good use of taxpayer’s money. She finished speaking by asking if anything could be done. The trees were scheduled to be removed the next day, Friday.

I sat there, on the dais, along with the other Councilmembers, somewhat overwhelmed after listening for hours about the various needs brought before the Council. Most of us, I would say, were perplexed by this particularly odd situation. As she walked away, one of us, it may have been the Chair, thanked her and said that the Council should look into this matter.

As she left the chamber, I thought to myself, this isn’t right. I should be able to do something. There were only a few more speakers left. I fought the urge to dramatically jump out of my seat and walk down into the public section to demonstrate my sympathy in front of the Council.

I couldn’t do it. It would have broken the decorum. In the fleeting seconds that went by, I reflected on a conversation I had with my wife the day before. We had been discussing an article about how strong the need was in all of us to conform to the expectations and behavior of a group we belonged to. A number of social experiments had been conducted over the years proving that it didn’t take much pressure, the tiniest bit, to get an individual to conform to the group norm. It seems, down deep, we all just want to get along, even if it means jettisoning our own beliefs or denying some evidence that lay before us.

Meekly I slide off the dais and exited the side door. I decided to meet her outside the chamber but my exit was on the far side of chamber’s exit, so I had to scurry around the chamber room hoping to catch her before she descended a long flight of stairs down to the lobby and left the building. As I rounded the chamber room and looked down the cascade of limestone steps, I caught sight of her ten paces from the door. I didn’t recall her name, a horrible shortcoming for a politician, and relied on that old standard refrain for getting someone’s attention: “Hey,” I yelled out. No luck. She reached for the door.

I had to be more direct, “Hey you,” I shouted again, It worked. She turned, saw me and smiled. I got the details and promised that I would do something. She reminded me that the trees were to be removed tomorrow morning. I went to back to my office, called the Park’s Superintendent’s office, and left a message. The major thrust was something along these lines, that this was a minor thing but one that could get bigger, since KING TV had already been out to her house about this snafu. In light of the snow removal media coverage, the Mayor and Councilmembers, didn’t need another media blast on how our priorities were a bit screwed up.

The next morning I called Tammara and told her that I had left a message with the Superintendent. She said the Parks crew was next door working, her yard was next. She had told them that she had talked to a Councilmember about the situation, hoping that that might delay their work.

I called the Superintendent again. He was out and his deputy Christopher Williams was in a meeting, did I want him called out of the meeting? Yes, that would be a good idea. I know the Deputy. He is a charming and competent person. I explained the situation. He thought it over and said he would need to talk to his staff and find out what it was all about. I told him that the removal was scheduled that morning and they were one yard away. He assured me he would get to it.

I called Tammara, got her answering machine and left an update. A little later Christopher called back and said that they would wait until the Superintendent returned on Monday. Tammara called back to say that the Parks crew had driven away to come back after the weekend.

Monday morning I reached Parks Superintendent Timothy Gallagher. We talked about the situation, I pointed out how this would be such a minor deviation from the tree plan and how it just would not be a good use of taxpayer’s money given these tight times, particularly in light of how this particular incident had gotten some TV coverage. He agreed to hold off doing anything until he could review the situation. By the end of the day the two ornamental trees remained planted and secure for the rest of their natural life.

Later that week one of my assistants opened a letter and found a note of thanks and a check. My assistant had been out sick and was unaware of this little incident. Scratching his head at our staff meeting he wanted to know why we were receiving a check for $973.76 made out to Tammara and her husband.

Well, I explained it’s about a tale of two trees.

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