Treevolt: Advisory board members resign in protest

City of Oswego crews on Monday continued work on the downtown West First Street sidewalks, above. The removal of trees in the area last week prompted a mass resignation Monday of the city’s Tree Advisory Board citizen members.

OSWEGO — Members of the Port City’s Tree Advisory Board submitted letters of resignation Monday morning, citing a recent decision to uproot a collection of trees on the West First Street downtown area as “the last straw” in a “pattern of behavior” that they say has neglected the board’s input.

The four-member board, comprised of ecology experts and urban vegetation enthusiasts appointed by Mayor Billy Barlow, was founded in 2011 to study, investigate and provide advisory opinions to the mayor, Common Council, Department of Public Works (DPW), Department of Code Enforcement and Community Development on all aspects of city forestry, according to the city’s own description of the board.

The decision to resign, according to board members, is in part a reaction to the removal of a group of oak, maple and honey locust trees last Thursday in favor of Japanese lilac trees that Barlow noted “will really dress up downtown.”

The move was made after discussing tree health and pedestrian safety during a committee meeting for the city’s Common Council in September, with city officials noting  the replacement of the trees falls under a “DPW, administrative, higher level decision.”

Tree Advisory Board members took to social media last week and over the weekend, noting they had not been consulted on the replacement of the trees and arguing the board had been overlooked in the decision-making process.

Brad Gibson, a now-former member of the Tree Advisory Board, noted he addressed the Common Council on the drawbacks and potential hazards of replacing the trees with a monoculture of non-native species.

Now after much deliberation and communication with the rest of his fellow former board members, Oswego’s Jonathan Ashline told The Palladium-Times Monday resignation was a measure they did not want to employ.

“None of us wanted to do it but we have been ignored by the Common Council and mayor for over a year and had no other option but to resign,” said Ashline, who was appointed to the Tree Advisory Board in 2017. “This is the end result of an administration and council that ignores expert advice and community recommendation of an advisory board appointed by the mayor himself.”

Former Tree Advisory Board member Valerie Dawnstar, who is also a coordinator with local conservationist organization Oswego Tree Stewards, said she was “very sorry and very frustrated” in having to resign to the board.

“I was frustrated, and then taking down the trees on First Street was like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Dawnstar said in a Monday interview with The Palladium-Times.

A long time environmental advocate in the city of Oswego, Dawnstar (who is also Ashline’s mother) said the board had been “ineffective,” adding representatives from other city agencies such as DPW, code enforcement and the Common Council “typically did not show up to meetings.”

Barlow told The Palladium-Times Monday he accepted the board members’ resignations, but dismissed them as political demonstrations.

“Quite frankly, it is my own mistake for appointing active members of the Democrat City Committee to a city committee under my administration,” Barlow said in reference to Ashline, who is running for the Third Ward seat of the city’s Common Council under the Democratic party line. “I’ve always tried to look past the politics of it and appoint folks who show an interest regardless of their political affiliation and I’ll still continue to do that despite this situation. The Democrats are doing what they have to do, trying to politicize anything they can to take back control of the council,” he said. “I understand that and don’t fault them for it.”

Now vacant, the Tree Advisory Board is also a factor in how the city receives grant funding for forestry projects from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, according to Ashline.

Ashline, who challenging Third Ward Republican and Council Vice President Kevin Hill, said Oswego is able to apply for DEC grants through its Tree City USA designation — a label awarded by the Arbor Day Foundation to communities that have achieved “sound urban forestry management, maintaining a tree board or department, having a community tree ordinance, spending at least $2 per capita on urban forestry and celebrating Arbor Day.”

Ashline added the designation may be in peril of being revoked if the city does not appoint new members by year’s end.

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