Urban forest fiasco

Controversial dismissal of city arborist raises questions

Correction appended

Tom Coffin loves trees. And when we say he loves trees, he reaaally loves trees.

The unfamiliar face – who was the city's senior arborist until he was fired July 29 – is the epicenter of the latest scandal to emanate from already embattled City Hall.

The city's failure to specify why Coffin was fired (or who called for it) has led many to speculate about the cause – and jump to the conclusion that developers saw him as a threat. Even the New York Times took notice – and questioned whether Atlanta's development machine had chalked a win over the environmental community.

The uproar began the day after Coffin, whose job it was to enforce the city's controversial tree ordinance, sent an e-mail to residents and members of city government in which he claimed he was fired from his $50,900-a-year position for the most curious of reasons: doing his job.

Coffin says he had approached his supervisors with claims that his colleagues were shirking their duties in reporting illegal removals of trees, an infraction that comes with a heavy fine in the city. He outlined his claims with graphs, compiled from city database statistics, that showed he carried the load in his department. This spring alone, Coffin issued a total of 70 citations. The other arborists combined issued a total of 29.

"If you were hired as a traffic cop, and you didn't issue a ticket for six months, would you still have a job?" Coffin says. "Maybe in the city of Atlanta."

Coffin's one of those rare souls who earned a paycheck that reflected his passion. To some, he was the environmental champion a city like Atlanta needed. A co-founder of the legendary alt-weekly the Great Speckled Bird, the 64-year-old real-life Lorax is a former sociology professor and holds a Ph.D. in forestry. He commuted from his Virginia-Highland home to City Hall on a recumbent bike. He is, according to one source, "the real deal." Environmentalists and arboreal adorers rally behind him because he is one of them.

Sheldon Schlegman, an architect and former chairman of the Tree Conservation Commission who penned the recent tree ordinance with Coffin, found out just how deep Coffin's loyalties run when Schlegman requested a tree removed because it was impacting the underground water pipes on his property. Coffin denied the request.

"As close as Tom and I are, he was going to do his job and make sure I wasn't irresponsible," Schlegman says. "It takes people with tenacity and integrity to protect our environment. It's easy to just turn around and do nothing." (The tree was later allowed to be removed.)

Documents made available to CL through an Open Records request include outpourings of adoration for Coffin from residents and fellow tree lovers. Coffin's supporters demanded an explanation for his dismissal, commended his work ethic and dedication, and urged the city to rehire him.

Sarah Mock of Buckhead recounted the time she spotted a man illegally cutting down a tree as she drove home from dinner on a Sunday. She called Coffin. The arborist raced to the scene and ultimately saved the tree.

"You, sir, will never find another Tom Coffin," she wrote to Ibrahim Maslamani, the director of the city's Bureau of Buildings and the fired arborist's former boss.

But the city may face political blowback should they rehire him.

Coffin's dedication has made him a controversial figure. To his critics, he's an unfair judge, jury and executioner who used the tree ordinance as a bludgeon against development. Tales abound of Coffin refusing to allow homeowners to cut down dangerous trees and doling out stiff fines to those who violated the ordinance. Some developers took issue with his tenacity.

Gunnison Tree Services, a Symrna-based tree-removal firm, complained in an e-mail to Ainsley Caldwell, Coffin's former supervisor, that the company had numerous problems with him, and requested that the city conduct a formal review.

E-mails and personnel files reviewed by CL suggest that it might not have been just developers and homeowners who were miffed with Coffin. Included among the documents were internal communications between fellow arborists, Coffin and Caldwell.

The e-mails suggest a tense work environment in which Coffin, who after five years on the job had recently been promoted to manager and oversaw four employees, held his colleagues' feet to the fire, often ordering them to refile paperwork and documentation. Coffin says he wanted to adhere to standards in the department to ensure credibility.

The weeks leading up to Coffin's firing read especially tense on paper. In an e-mail to Caldwell, he wrote that he intended to issue "oral admonishments" to two subordinates for alleged discrepancies in filing reports and for work behavior. Caldwell, who Coffin says was aware of the allegations, told him the course of action was "your call," and that a sit-down with Maslamani could be arranged before Coffin went on vacation in early August. The subordinates made a similar request to meet with Caldwell and Maslamani to discuss an unspecified issue relating to Coffin.

But the meetings never took place. On July 29, Coffin was dropped from the city payroll.

City Hall has remained mum on Coffin's dismissal. Because his termination has been declared a personnel matter and unrelated to Atlanta's $140 million budget shortfall, to discuss anything besides public record related to the case could make the city a prime target for a lawsuit.

As CL went to press Monday, Councilwoman Mary Norwood was planning to introduce a resolution calling for an investigation into Coffin's firing. She also plans to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that would require a top-down audit of the Bureau of Buildings. Last week, Mayor Shirley Franklin asked the city's Human Resources Department to review Coffin's dismissal.

But judging from one city communiqué that CL obtained, city officials appear to be firm in their decision to fire Coffin. In a cryptic July 31 e-mail, planning commissioner Steve Cover advised Coffin's former boss – who had asked for marching orders in response to the deluge of e-mails and phone calls protesting Coffin's dismissal – to "stick to our plan."

When asked to expand on the necessity to uphold the dismissal, Cover demurred. In a statement, he said that he advised Maslamani "to stay on course with our decision to provide only the facts on this very sensitive personnel matter."

Additional reporting by Staff Writer Scott Henry.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated how Tom Coffin came to own his recumbent bicycle.  The story also incorrectly described his educational background.