At the entrance to the City of San Fernando along Brand Boulevard, there’s a distinct green and white sign that designates it as “Tree City, USA.”
But that designation took a bit of a tumble last weekend when a couple of blocks north of the sign, just past Kewen Street, within the street’s median where tall Queen palm trees once stood, stumps remained surrounded by palm fronds.
In what city officials said was a “grave mistake,” six Queen palm trees were cut down on Oct. 16 and 17, a job that was part of a contract for a major drought landscape renovation along that boulevard.
On Sunday, Oct. 18, a couple dozen residents protested the removal of the trees that residents pointed out, had been in the city for several decades.
“We’re very sad that they cut these trees that have been here many years. I don’t like that they’re cutting the trees. These trees don’t need water, if that’s why they cut them,” said Ana Balderas who, along with Maria Fernandez, participated in the protest.
“This is a historic city and we’re very sad and angered at this,” Fernandez said.
Julie Cuellar, a former City planning commissioner, was among the protestors. She said she found out about it Sunday morning, and “it hurt me” to see what happened.
Cuellar is also a member of the controversial group Residents for Better San Fernando who organized the protest. They dressed in black, placed mock tombstones that said “Rest in Pieces,” next to the fallen trees, and one person costumed as the Grim reaper wore a sign that said “City Hall.”
The group is viewed as controversial largely because among their core leadership are those who have been previously recalled, or are the relatives of those who have been previously recalled from the city council and have been involved in past public scandals.
“These trees take a long time to grow and for them to just be taken out in one day, it’s so sad,” Cuellar said. “Someone needs to accountable for this.”
Soto Blames Saeki
That someone, according to the City’s newest council member Jaime Soto, should be City Manager Brian Saeki. Soto, also at the helm of the protest, immediately demanded Saeki’s resignation.
Soto, Saeki, Vice Mayor Sylvia Ballin and other residents, had a testy exchange near the protest as television cameras rolled. Soto railed against Saeki, blaming him for the trees being cut down.
“This is a major red flag on the management of the City,” Soto said, as Saeki responded that he regretted the mistake, “But everything we’ve done in this community is for the better.”
On hearing this, Soto asked Saeki if he was willing to submit his resignation over that “mistake.” Ballin jumped in and told Saeki not to continue the discussion as Soto was just “baiting” him, she said. “This is not an appropriate discussion to be having here.”
But Soto, who said emphatically he would not talk to the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol newspaper when asked to clarify his position, said at a later news conference that “we have not had transparency in the City. This is a setback for the City and we’re only getting some partial information. We have to get answers as to what happened and why.
“The city manager said it was his mistake,” Soto added when talking to some residents.
The person who facilitated the press conference was former state assemblywoman Cindy Montanez, who years earlier had been the Mayor of the City of San Fernando and served alongside her sister, Maribel de la Torre, a polarizing figure who was later recalled. Montanez had moved out of the city and was absent from the city for several years.
When asked about her role with the protest however, Montanez said she was only there as a “concerned resident” of the City of San Fernando.
“I grew up in San Fernando, and when you come into the City on Brand Boulevard, one of the most identifying features are these trees,” Montanez said. “It was shocking for me to see this. We had been told that all trees were going to be preserved and trees added. This is really disappointing.”
She said she hoped the city council, “along with the city manager,” can figure out who was at fault. “The person who allowed for this should pay,” Montanez said. “Taxpayers shouldn’t pay for this destruction.”
City Officials Respond
At the council meeting on Monday, Oct. 19, Saeki said that the landscaping architect contracted with the city is taking full responsibility for the mistake.
“I spoke with him Larry Moss of Larry Moss Associates prior to the council meeting and he confirmed that his staff understood that those trees would not be touched.” ” Saeki said. “The city is currently in discussion with them to provide a remedy. Saeki, upon investigating what went wrong, said that the plans which are part of the written contract did not correctly correspond to the instruction from the city that the trees should not be cut down.
At the end of September, the City approved a $348,335 contract with West Hills-based KTB Construction to install drought tolerant landscaping and irrigation.
After several revisions to the contract and, because in the end what was city officials said was a “clerical error”, what the plans actually stated was that nine palm trees should be cut.
“Six have been removed and will be replaced. And we’re adding 18 new trees, 10 coastal live oaks that are native of this area and eight olive trees,” Saeki said.
The medians along Brand Boulevard would also include artificial turf, drought tolerant landscaping, drip irrigation and other drought measures.
“We share the concern of the residents and we feel terrible,” Saeki said. “The removal (of the trees) was a mistake.”
Saeki went on to say, “I will deal with the discipline on this thing as I see fit and repeat, this was a mistake.” But, he added, the landscaping project would continue.
When asked about Soto’s call for his resignation, Saeki said he would not comment.
Council Members’ Animosity with Soto
The dispute carried into the city council meeting on Monday, which was attended by even more media.
Soto and Mayor Joel Fajardo spoke to media both offering different perspectives.
Soto implied that the cut trees were symptomatic of a larger plan to hurt the town. Fajardo, with other council members, maintaining the trees were being used as ammunition by Soto to go after the city manager to achieve his political agenda, and that of the group Residents for A Better San Fernando.
During the meeting, the recalled former Mayor Brenda Esqueda, also a participant of the group, snapped several photos of Ballin, and spoke loudly referring to the vice mayor as “Sybil” during public comments. She accused the council of being “puppets.”
Flyers were later found at the back of the council chambers with Ballin’s photo referring to the outspoken council member as “Sybil,” referencing the movie whose characters had split personalities. At one point during the council meeting, Soto also referred to Ballin as “Sybil.”
“They don’t bother me, they’re childish,” said Ballin, after someone showed her one of the flyers.
Throughout the public comment period several residents referred to the trees as “historical.”
Lifelong resident Paul Luna, however, took exception to this description and said he remembers when the trees weren’t there.
“These trees are old but they aren’t historical … I’ve been here all my life, for 63 years ever since I was born. I’m old but I’m not historical. These trees were put in to make the city something that it wasn’t. I can still still remember the red car going down Brand, and I can still remember the tracks. These streets have been around here longer then a lot of people in this city have been here ”
Saeki’s announcement that the landscape company would provide a remedy would not appease the protesting residents or Councilmember Soto, who continued to call for Saeki’s resignation and implied that the cutting down of trees was part of a larger plan. At the end of the meeting, during council comments, Ballin took issue with Soto, “You are actually entertaining.”
Fajardo pointed out that that “it wouldn’t make sense for anyone – no one benefits from the cutting down of the trees.” He said that as the city manager Saeki took the right approach that the “buck stops with him,: but said, “thisThis is an individual incident that transpired. It was an error that occurred. It is not part of any larger plot. There is no one who benefits in the city by cutting down these palm trees, Not a single resident benefits. Not a single business benefits. I don’t understand how in the world this can be construed.” Fajardo continued, ” It really comes down to a small group of people obsessed with connecting dots — some of which don’t exist.”
Soto interrupting the Mayor said, “You need to open your eyes, Mr. Mayor!.”
” I find it a bit perplexing that some of these people who are incredibly outraged about the trees — and, granted, I understand that people are upset — but where were these same people when there were other problems at City Hall?” Fajardo asked. “Where were you, when there was a city manager who was also serving as the finance director, and wasn’t qualified to manage a sandlot. When there was a city council that was proposing to eliminate our contract with the L.A. Fire Department and set up shot with San Fernando Fire and Rescue, which couldn’t guarantee they’d have insurance and couldn’t guarantee they could connect with the 9-1-1 system. The list can go on and on,” Fajardo said.
Fajardo then taking issue with the “conspiracy and plot,” that Soto has implied is underway said, “I just don’t see where that same outrage was all these years. We really have to understand that yes, there is a bigger plot in this but it’s connected to politics. It is disappointing that the trees were removed: but it is connected to politics and it’s also connected to campaigning for 2017.”
Ballin said that she would remain steadfast in supporting the city manager and city staff.
“We don’t want to play the game that has been played in the past. It’s actually kind of like a nightmare, going back to the past.’m not supportive of, based on someone’s hidden agenda — who, by the way, before he [Soto] was elected told me the first item on his agenda was to get rid of the city manager — well gee, here we are today, [with you] saying the same thing.”
Soto interrupting Ballin said, You better cite your sources…” Ballin replied, “Accuse? That’s exactly what you said to me.” Soto, attempting to talk over Ballin said, ” Vice Mayor Ballin you should resign along with Ms. Saeki.Your personality disorders are frightening.”
Fajardo banging his gavel asked Soto to let Ballin speak.
“I’ve heard you make comments about my ‘personality disorders,’ and I find that entertaining, you should become a comedian,” Ballin continued. “As I said, that statement was made to me prior to you winning the election,” Ballin said,
“I’m very disappointed in you [[Soto] as a city council member. I had great hopes. That is definitely taking a page out of the past. And that is not what I will ever do. I want answers like everyone else wants answers. But I don’t want answers based on intimidation, harassment and threat. That is from the past.”