There are days when I honestly wonder why I'm in local government. Today was one of those days.
The Island Savings Centre Commission held a special meeting to make a final determination on the fate of that old, hollow maple tree in the parking lot at the Community Centre - the one by the library entrance. If you're new to this file, we had an arborist's report done early this year which indicated the tree was in deteriorating health, and posed a potential liability risk. Concurrent with that report, we were working on a redesign of the parking lot, which is more than 30 years old and in dire need of an upgrade. Long story short, the recommendation was to improve safety by redesigning the parking lot entrance on James Street. Rather than two parking lot access points (one in and one out), the new design would provide a single in-out, located precisely where the tree is now. So the tree would have to be removed. Which - given the arborist's report - was pretty much a given already, even before the parking lot design was finalized.
But the decision to remove the tree, when it was communicated publicly, caused a considerable stir. On June 28th, the day we brought in the tree removal company to "do the deed", a young lady named Seairra Courtemanche climbed up and chained herself to the tree. The RCMP couldn't talk her down, so the issue went to the CVRD Board. Often in cases like this, governments will immediately move to "legal" options, including applying for an injunction to remove the protestors. In this case, the CVRD Board decided to do something else. They passed a motion to do the parking lot work in stages, starting at the end furthest away from the tree. In the meantime, they arranged for a community meeting to hear public input on the tree. That meeting was held on Monday, July 11th.
The Commission held another special meeting two days later to consider the public input that was received. We ordered a second arborist's report on the tree, asked some questions about the financial costs of preserving it, and asked about the safety implications of redesigning the parking lot. Today's meeting was to look at the answers to those questions, and to make a final decision.
We received the second report from Victoria-based arborist Dr. Julian Dunster. His report essentially says the tree is in rough shape, but that it could be saved by inserting a pole into the middle of it and shoring it up. Here's a concept drawing of how it would work, taken directly from his report:
Staff have determined the cost of that to be around $10,000. Mr. Dunster infers this would extend the life of the tree by 5 (or perhaps 10) years. You can read his full report here.
But the Commission decided not to go that route. Instead, the tree will be coming out, and the parking lot design will go ahead as originally planned. We also passed a second motion, “to provide opportunity for the public to participate in a working group to make decisions on the trunk once the tree is removed and the trunk is relocated, as well as how the tree is honoured.” I'll get to that motion later.
The discussion at the meeting was intense. The 50 or so people in the gallery accused us, collectively, of being "stone-hearted". Commission Chair Sharon Jackson was called out as a "liar". Folks also demanded I apologize for something I said. More on that in a minute.
Chair Jackson started the discussion by talking about the passions that this issue had engendered, and used the word "bullying" to describe the actions of some who wanted to preserve the tree. She also referenced a death threat against members of the Commission, which has been forwarded to the RCMP to deal with. And then she outlined her reasons for supporting the main motion, including the notion that "as stewards of taxpayers’ money, as decision makers who have to weigh likelihoods of failure and the levels of liability, the choice is ours to make. (And) we should not be making costly and risky decisions based on emotion, but (rather) on the cost/risk benefit analysis..."
Then it came my turn to speak. Herewith, my speaking notes. I was interrupted a few times by boos and catcalls from the audience, so this might not be exactly how everything came out of my mouth, but here's what I intended to say:
"I've seen a lot of correspondence on this issue. A lot of it is before us, and most of the formal correspondence has been in favour of saving the tree.
One of the letters I saw - and I haven't been able to find it in our package, it came to me by way of an email to my North Cowichan email account - appealed to me to save the tree and closed with the notion that I should "do the right thing, not the easy thing."
As though voting in favour of taking the tree down in front of a crowd of people who are passionate about saving it would be the "easy" thing to do. Frankly, the "easy" thing for me to do today would be to acquiesce to the pressure we're under.
But I've also received a lot of phone calls and I've had dozens and dozens of conversations about this. Everywhere I go - whether it's shopping, taking part in the Duncan Parade, or attending social and other events - people want to talk about this tree. And the folks who are talking to me about it are almost unanimous. They want the tree down. In fact, many of them can't even believe we're having this discussion.
My social media feeds have exploded on this thing; I've had more than 20-thousand views on tree-related posts on my Facebook page since this discussion started about a month ago. I've had my Councillor Al Siebring Facebook page up for over two years. There's not a single other issue that has attracted as many visits to my page as this one. And the comments - both public and in private messages - have run about 90% in favour of taking the tree down.
I want to respect the input that has been received. But I have to respect all of the input that I've received.
I acknowledge there have been lots of signatures on a petition. But I also have to acknowledge that the exchanges I've had have been at least as numerous when I add up the emails, the conversations, and the social media interactions. And those folks, while they're not signing petitions, are also making their wishes abundantly clear."
(At this point, I was interrupted by catcalls from the crowd; folks who demanded to know where all these people who want to cut the tree down were? Why they weren't at the meeting? My response was simply that "they have jobs and are probably at work." That set off howls of protest, and prompted demands later in the meeting that I apologize to everyone in the room for inferring they were a bunch of unemployed slackers. To be clear, that was never my intent, and it wasn't what I said. But I'm also not going to apologize for the comment. Folks can choose to take it any way they want - I was asked where the "supporters" of taking down the tree were, and I gave what I believed to be a factual answer. Back to my speaking notes:)
"I want to touch, just for a second, on the other arborist's report, from Mr. Todd Gesshe. (This was a report that supporters of the tree had commissioned to bolster their case.) Frankly, Mr. Gessche's report failed to convince me, largely on the basis of his qualifications. He writes that he has "tree risk assessment and consulting experience." But, while he may have that experience, and he is an arborist, he is not ISA certified as a Tree Risk Assessment Professional. The distinction is important, because at base this is about the "risk" the tree poses.
Back to the issue of public support. I note that on the "Tree of Life" Facebook page, there's lots of talk about how - if we vote to take the tree down - this will come back and bite us at the next election. That's fair enough, but I can't sit here and make decisions based on how my vote will impact my political future. For me, this issue remains centered on the two issues I talked about at the last meeting - the matter of liability, and about doing the right thing with taxpayer dollars. I also find it interesting that the aforementioned Facebook page has only managed to attract, as of this morning, 81 "likes". That's a far cry from the 1750 names on the petition. But it's also a far cry from the number of people who've told me in no uncertain terms that they disagree with the notion of keeping the tree.
That Facebook page also links to a gofundme page called "treesarelife.ca". The goal on that page was to get $3-thousand dollars in donations. I'm not sure how long it's been up - the first donation was made about 10 days ago - but so far, just two people have donated. A grand total of $125 dollars. I will grant that obviously those who want to save the tree have been self-funding their enterprise; I presume somebody had to pay something for Mr. Gesshe's report. But in a day and age where gofundme has been known to raise millions of dollars in just a few days for certain causes (and I will grant that this one doesn't have that kind of profile, but still...) I think it's fair to say the people of the Cowichan Valley aren't exactly lining up with open wallets to support this cause in any big way.
But that is what we're asking them to do if we save the tree. We're being asked to spend $10,000 tax-payer-funded dollars for the work that Mr. Dunster recommends. And then up to $1500 per year for maintenance. And for what? To potentially extend the life of this tree by 5 or 10 years. And then what? Are we back in this room, debating whether to spend another $10,000 dollars?
It's been said that saving the tree will save us $40-thousand dollars in the overall parking lot budget. I remain unconvinced. First of all because - as I said - we'll potentially be back in this same spot in five years, and arguably in a worse place in terms of the parking lot redesign and the expenses associated with it. And secondly because if we choose to save the tree, the configuration of the parking lot does compromise on safety. It would be better than it is now, yes. But it wouldn't be as good as it could be.
While I acknowledge the passion and the energy that have gone into the campaign to save this tree, I won't be doing the "easy thing" here. Because, as I said, the "easy thing" would be to look at all of you, smile, and vote to save the tree.
Instead, I'll be doing what I consider to be - for all the reasons I've outlined - the "right thing". I'll be supporting the motion before us."
After some more discussion, the Commission passed a motion that said “That the Big Leaf Maple Tree be removed and the redesign of the Island Savings Centre parking lot proceed in accordance with Attachment B of the General Manager, Community Services, July 12, 2016 report.”
So the decision is made. The tree will have to go. During the question period that followed, Seairra Courtemanche (she was the one who had climbed the tree back on June 28th), appealed to the Commission to at least "save the stump". To be honest, I wasn't totally clear on what she was asking. Was she requesting that we save the stump "in place"? In the location where the tree is now? Because the motion clearly said that the parking lot redesign would be done with the tree gone.
In any event, after the open portion of the meeting, we went into "closed" session. Under the Local Government Act, I can't talk about what was discussed there. But anyone who watches these things unfold knows what "usually" happens with respect to these cases. (See my comments near the beginning.) However, I can tell you that the Commission went a different route, unanimously passing - and then publicly reporting out on - a motion to "provide opportunity for the public to participate in a working group to make decisions on the trunk once the tree is removed and the trunk is relocated, as well as how the tree is honoured."
I see this as an attempt to not do "business as usual" on this, but instead, to engage the community within the context of the decision that has been made. To be clear, the decision won't be changed; the tree is coming down. But perhaps something can be done to "save the stump" per Ms. Courtemanche's request - albeit that the stump will be "relocated". And maybe this can be done in a way that acknowledges the strong feelings about this issue, and brings some closure for all concerned. After what I saw at today's meeting, I think that is sorely needed.
I started out by saying that today was "one of those days where I wonder why I'm in local government." To be clear, that wasn't some invitation to a pity-party for "poor Al". But sometimes, these situations can be difficult and frustrating. (I went through an entire roll of Tums during the meeting.)
In the end, I'm not particularly proud of the decision we made today. But I'm absolutely not ashamed of it either. This isn't about that, and it's not about me.
Difficult decisions have to be made, in spite of how some people feel about them. I do take considerable comfort from the fact that I wasn't standing alone on this. Almost every other Commission member - having read and considered all the reports from the professionals and from staff - agreed with me in the final vote, and this includes people with whom I have often disagreed sharply on other issues.
But it is what it is. I truly hope we can now move forward.