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Take My Council, Please: As the Tree Fund Turns, er, Revolves…

Springfield

Does the tree fund revolve around them? (WMP&I and Google images)

SPRINGFIELD—The City Council sped through a thin agenda Monday that included a final realization of the new tree ordinance. Earlier this year, the Council approved a revamped arboreal code including fines and fees for removing public trees. However, the creation of the fund to use the revenue to plant new trees was a dead letter until the revolving fund itself was created. 

Beyond the revolving fund ordinance, the agenda was mostly grants, however. City Forester Alex Sherman, who presented the final step of the tree ordinance, presented funds for trees. Joining him was his new boss, Thomas Ashe, the mayor’s former chief of staff and an ex-councilor, who presented separate funds. At least one grant did not advance. Amid rampant technical difficulties in the chamber, though, councilors withheld approval of the cable franchise allocation to public access services. 

Councilors Lavar Click-Bruce, Sean Curran and Maria Perez were absent. Councilors Malo Brown, Zaida Govan, Brian Santaniello, Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield participated remotely. 

The meeting opened with committee reports. Special Committee on New Revenue Chair Victor Davila described a meeting in which he said everything was on the table to boost income. Audit Committee chair Jose Delgado said his panel recently met with Director of Internal Audit Young No about the upcoming year’s audit plan. 

Finance Committee Chair Timothy Allen indicated in his report he would move to keep the public access funds—a quarterly payment of nearly $153,000—in his committee. Before the meeting began, Council President Michael Fenton had indicated he might have to cancel the meeting if the Focus Springfield staff could not fix the problems occurring that evening. 

Tim Allen

Referring technical difficulties to committee. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

“Given all the problems we’re having with sound systems, this probably should go to committee to discuss how it’s going to help us here,” Allen said when the funds came up later in the meeting. 

But in the end, it did not come to that. However, for some reason the sound system within the chamber had to stay at a very low volume. That made the remote councilors nearly impossible to hear. Rather than hear them through the speakers in the chamber, their sound came through a speaker in the anteroom where Focus Springfield staff sit. 

At one point, Councilor Govan attempted to vote via thumbs up as she could not be heard. However, neither Fenton nor City Clerk Gladys Oyola-Lopez could accept such a vote. Thankfully, shortly thereafter, the sound came out from the anteroom. 

The Council returned the funds to Finance Committee without dissent. 

The $1.8 million grant for trees that Sherman presented came from the state Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs. The funds can purchase trees for planting on or near residents’ property. Sherman said residents could request trees through the city’s 311 service. 

The grant Ashe presented was $500,000 from the state Department of Environmental Protection. He said it would finance a study of the watercourses and dams inside Forest Park, most prominently Porter Lake. 

Both grants passed unanimously. 

The Council approved smaller finance items all together. This included a grant under $100,000 for Emergency Management and a $10,000 increase in a recycling grant. The final financial item was a $5,245 donation to parks. 

Councilors approved a $45,000 transfer from contingencies to the Election Commission. Oyola-Lopez, who still oversees the commission, said the increased costs arose from voting by mail and the presidential primary. 

In contrast to last week’s meeting, the tree ordinance revolving fund sailed through with little debate.  

Alex Sherman

City Forester Alex Sherman would never leaf a tree question unanswered. (via Springfield City Hall)

At-large Councilor Delgado inquired about outreach. Sherman, the city forester, said most contractors—who would be the likeliest to remove public trees—were aware of the ordinance. However, he committed to expanding outreach to inform the broader public.  

Responding to Ward 7 Councilor Allen, Sherman explained that while his office would turn the funds around to plant new trees, there was no specific plan yet. He indicated that he wanted to see how much money was coming in before firming up a strategy. 

Final step passed without dissent, sending the ordinance to the mayor for his signature. 

While the city’s canopy varies from neighborhood, the treescape of the city has long been one of its main attractions. That, in turn, explains councilors’ enthusiasm for the ordinance and its addenda, such as this revolving fund ordinance. It reflects residents’ sentiments, which means the subject is fodder for politicking. 

Springfield

(WMP&I)

The burst of debate last week on the size of the fee, may have reflected this. Therefore, it was odd there were not more questions this week, especially from anybody trying to burnish their credentials.

Indeed, Sherman was on hand for just that inevitability. But Monday, nobody presented him with any questions he could not quickly cut down. 

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