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The Vault: trees, transparency and truth

Posted on December 23, 2015 | 13 comments

Welcome to The Vault – this is where Bluestone will place all sorts of subscriber-access-only material. If you have something you would like to submit, please email us at editor@bluestonemagazine.com.au
foreshore trees1

The sudden removal of a row of established tea tree along Pertobe Rd by the W’bool City Council sparked a passionate response from the Warrnambool community.

The Vault – Carol Altmann & Louise North

What began as a simple question to the Warrnambool City Council about the removal of some trees has gone on to reveal a much deeper concern that strikes right at the heart of the public’s right to know.

The last 24 hours has confirmed that there is now a two-tier system in place: those people and media organisations who meet the council’s approval and those who don’t. Those who acquiesce will be accommodated and those who dare to dig deeper or question further will be ignored.

In a one-newspaper, regional city with close ties and connections, this is a deeply troubling attack on one of the fundamental parts of a democracy where people have a right to expect an open, transparent and accountable government on all levels. The media, including new media outlets like Bluestone Magazine, are critical to this expectation being met.

First, some brief background for those of you who may not be on Facebook or Twitter, which is where Bluestone revealed the removal of a row of well-established tea-tree from Pertobe Rd this week.

In the scheme of things this might be seen as a small story, but more than 6500 people saw our post and many reacted passionately, asking why the trees had been taken out and that they were saddened, disappointed and even horrified at the loss of this native vegetation.

The WCC issued a tweet to its followers after Bluestone had made public that the trees had been removed, saying: “Old tea trees removed along Pertobe Rd for safety following inspection by arborist. Replacements to be planted in autumn.”

Safety? Inspection by an arborist? We wanted to know more.

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The council says the tea tree was removed after an inspection by an arborist, but the arborist’s report is yet to surface.

We emailed WCC communications officer Nick Higgins, Mayor Kylie Gaston and all the councillors to see if we could find out more detail.

Cr Brian Kelson said he was unaware of the removal of the trees, but questioned why the council’s guideline of only removing one-third of the height had not be applied. (note: an earlier version of this story said only Cr Gaston responded to our questions. Cr Kelson also responded.)

Mayor Gaston also responded and the relevant part of her email is here:

“Not all the trees have been removed as people thought may happen this morning which is a good thing.  The young man returned this morning to finish the stumps only.
I believe the trees cut down were assessed as high risk due to cracks and a certain worm being detected in the trees.  
The remaining trees are believed to be fine and will be watched.  No one wishes them to be cut down.
It was recently pointed out to us by our auditor that since the sad accident when the child was killed by a tree in Bendigo this year, councils are being a lot warier of the risk.  This would be a case in point I suppose.”

Leaving the death of the child in Bendigo to one side for a moment (we will get back to that tragedy), we than asked to see the arborist’s report that led to such a dramatic response for a row of worm-infected tea tree.

Mayor Gaston was on the road by this time, so we emailed media manager Mr Higgins yesterday – as is council protocol – and asked directly:

Hello Nick,
As Mayor Gaston is on the road, I am writing to ask you directly if the WCC can forward a copy of the arborist’s report on the tea trees removed from Pertobe Rd.
Regards,
Carol​

Three hours later, having obviously scoured our Facebook page to gauge public feedback on this issue, we received this reply at 5.26pm yesterday:

Hello Carol,

We will decline the invitation to have further input into your commentary.

Comments on your Facebook page which describe council staff as “environmental rapists” and “grubs” are offensive.

Actually, what was said on the page was this:

facebook message

And this:

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Passionate, yes. But no individual WCC staff member was named and certainly not defamed.

While we closely monitor our Facebook page to remove potentially defamatory comments and offensive language, we also believe members of the public who are prepared to express an opinion (however passionately) under their real names is what a free and robust discussion is all about.

We also find the council’s refusal to comment to us on this basis particularly interesting given a senior member of its own staff, tourism manager Peter Abbott, was this year exposed for attacking some councillors under a pseudonym to the local newspaper.

Here is our response to Mr Higgins:

Hello Nick,
It is not an invitation, but a request for information that should be in the public domain, given it was stated as the reason for the removal of the trees.
Just to be clear, are you saying the WCC is with holding this information because of a comment/s by a third party – under their own name/s – on our Facebook page that does not in any way attack an individual but perhaps, instead, expresses the clear frustration and disappointment at the decision to remove this vegetation?
Strong words, certainly, but we believe in allowing people who are brave enough to have a say publicly, under their own name, to actually have a say.
I wish to point out that Bluestone Magazine has made no such comments and has instead raised an issue that was brought to our attention by readers wanting to know why and how the decision was made to remove the tea tree. We also pondered why the council had not chosen to make this information public before the trees were removed, as is recommended in its own tree removal policy.
Despite this, you are saying that this information will not be supplied.
I can only ponder if the same restrictions applied to the Warrnambool Standard when, until recently, it regularly permitted such criticism and attacks on both council and councillors not only on social media, but on its website, including – as you know – comments written by WCC senior staff under pseudonyms.
If this is the chief executive’s ruling, then we will be lodging an FOI for this information, as is becoming the way that the council demands we do business when seeking documents that should and could be in the public domain.
Regards,
Carol

And Mr Higgins’ reply?

I am out of the office from 22/12/2015 05:15 PM until 11/01/2016 08:30 PM.
Hello,
I am on leave from December 23, returning January 11, 2016. If the matter is urgent call 0466 199 511.

banyan trees

After the removal of the tea trees, a reader contacted us to highlight the removal of several New Zealand Christmas trees along Banyan St, again without public notification.

We are still waiting for the arborist’s report, if in fact one exists. We are, pardon the pun, going out on a limb to say that it doesn’t.

But this is about more than trees.

This is also, in our view, about the council trying to shut down public criticism and scrutiny by scraping social media, and it’s about an attempt to “choke” an organisation like ours that cannot be “media managed”.

You, our followers, will know that this is not the first time. We have still not received answers to our questions on the Porter’s shed, or a copy of the report on the results of the 2015 Fun4Kids festival, or whether, indeed, if all of the missing Loch Ard lead ingots have ever been recovered.

But we will keep asking.

The death of a child from a falling tree limb in Bendigo in 2013 led to a coronial inquiry where the council was found not liable. The tree, in that tragic case, was a 90 year old Grey Box gum and the branch that broke was an 18m long limb that dropped from 4 to 6 metres. The coroner set down eight recommendations about council tree management, including installing a computer based management system detailing what trees it owns, a risk assessment and maintenance schedule; a formalised tree inspection protocol; that all assessments be done by an experienced arborist; and that the assessments include the root system and canopy. There is no suggestion that all damaged trees be removed, but that pruning may also be an option. You can read the full report here. You can also read the WCC tree policy here.

Meanwhile, on the subject of public liability, click here to see a case that actually is just waiting to happen within the Warrnambool CBD.

Related stories:

Silencing councillors tightens grip on public right to know

WCC continues to close off public scrutiny

13 Comments

  1. It is a pity the WCC feel the need to try and cover up their actions, rather than engage in good public discussion. Might be missing the pre-facebook/twitter days, when it took a lot longer for news to travel. Hard not to think that some pre-Christmas “I can’t be bothered” has crept in here. I guess they are hoping everyone will just forget about it by the new year.
    A realm of secrecy only causes more problems in the long run, while an open, involved community is one that works well for everyone, includng the councillors.
    Thank you Bluestone, for not letting this sink beneath the murky waters of council affairs.

  2. The removal of tress does seem to have been timed to occur when we are all preoccupied with so many other things.

    I walk along Pertobe road every Sunday evening, I always admire the wonderful shapes and textures of the beautiful tea trees, especially one of the trees that no longer exists!

    It is such an old trick… cutting down tress without public notice. They can’t be put back, so no matter what, it is always too late!

  3. What a load of rubbish , I’m saddened by a child losing its life in Bendigo but for a tea tree to come down and kill a person is absurd , the worm issue hmmmm so we have such a clever local tea tree worm that it only targets a few trees at lake pertobe ?? These decision makers are living in their own world, guliabe we are not !!!

  4. What an unprofessional response from the WCC communications officer. If the right to know only extends to those who are uncritical of the council’s activities, council is hardly a democratic institution.

  5. Mayor Kylie Gaston
    You are elect by the people for the people

    release the arborist report now!

    • Yes please!

  6. I do think we are certainly entitled to see the report that assessed these trees needed to be removed because they were “potentially dangerous”. Any citizen can surely ask to see that.

    As you pointed out to me Carol – Council says in it’s street tree policy……”The concern associated with the removal of trees can be minimised through proper consultation with the community and a demonstration of the importance of trees by Council and the communication of these views to the community.”

    We should certainly expect Council to follow its own policy. These were significant trees loved by many in our community and the decision and reason to remove them should have been communicated BEFORE any action was taken. Council has both not ‘seen’ the beauty and special quality of these particular trees in this part of Warrnambool and it has not followed its own policy.

    There is also a bigger issue for our world when risk management taken to extremes becomes the overarching way to make decisions. I mean a tree limb falling from a 90 year old gum tree resulting in a tragic accident is one thing but to disregard your own policy and quickly move to chop down a row of gnarly tea tree that gave character and shade to this very public area, while citing risk management concerns flowing from the Bendigo tree is very worrying to me. Where does this kind of flow on end for Councils who do have to manage risk in such a litigious world? Council use cars and roundup – and these are certainly more potentially dangerous than a row of tea tree on citizen health. What if someone now sues the Council because the removal of shade might result in potentially dangerous sunburn for people having a picnic in that area?

    I mourn the loss of those trees terribly.

    • There is a wonderful line in the council’s tree policy: “Prudent tree management requires Council to assume that every tree, no matter how insignificant it may appear, has some value to someone.”
      And that is all that needs to be said, really, about the need for simple communication about what is happening and why.

  7. My earlier comment didn’t ‘stick’ it seems. Suffice to say, councils can and have been sacked in Victoria. http://m.theage.com.au/victoria/wangaratta-council-sacked-over-toxic-culture-20130918-2ty76.html

    • Hi Marilyn, your comment was over on the second story – the one with the images from the Timor St carpark. Here it is in full, just so we have it in both spots!

      Hi Carol and Louise
      I’m sure that I will not be alone in commending you both for your fearless reporting and tenacity in chasing down the rationale and truth behind topical issues.
      When an entity such as a local council puffs itself up full of self righteous importance, a downfall may not be too far away.
      Warrnambool City Council would not be the first in Victoria to be sacked by the Premier.
      http://m.theage.com.au/victoria/wangaratta-council-sacked-over-toxic-culture-20130918-2ty76.html

      • Hi Carol,
        Thanks for your reply. I thought perhaps that some Christmas gremlins had snuck in.
        Marilyn

  8. “It will help its readers to think, more knowledgeably, more hopefully, more critically, about the problems and issues confronting Australia”

    This quote was published in 1964 about the establishment of ‘The Australian’ newspaper. Wholly in a different league yet just as important, this is exactly what Bluestone is doing for Warrnambool at present. Keep investigating, and keep reporting!

    • A different league indeed, but what a wonderful quote, Christian. We might have to print that out and stick it on the office wall. Thankyou for your encouragement.

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