Commentary: Trees, transparency and trust in Flint

By Paul Rozycki

“Except during the nine months before he draws his first breath, no man manages his affairs as well as a tree does.”
–  George Bernard Shaw  

“A hypocrite is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.”

Adlai E. Stevenson

“Peace and trust take years to build and seconds to shatter.”
Mahogany SilverRain

The problem with destroying trust is that it’s not limited to one area.

Without a doubt trust in government was devastated with the Flint water crisis—and for good reason. The ineptitude, insensitivity, callousness and criminality of all levels of government has become more obvious as the three years of crisis have unfolded. It will take much more time and effort to restore trust in the system than it will to repair or replace the pipes in Flint.

With distrust so high it’s all too easy to distrust all institutions of government (and non-government) as well.

That distrust in so many institutions (the government, corporations, the media) has fueled the candidacy and election of Donald Trump. Ironically, that same level of distrust has given Trump the lowest ratings of any newly inaugurated president.

Stump on Maxine Street shows obvious deterioration; Keeler says not all trees coming down are so clearly diseased. (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

It is also impacting Flint neighborhoods. Long known as Tree City USA, Flint has joined with the Genesee Conservation District to remove dead and diseased trees from the city curbs and trim trees for public safety. The project’s many details are outlined in Jan Worth-Nelson’s recent story posted here.

From all indications, the project is well intentioned to preserve and protect Flint’s tree covered heritage and assure that future generations will live under the shade of as many trees as we do.   However, as documented in Jan’s story, sometimes even programs with the best of intentions can go astray.

CCNA President Mike Keeler (left) and other residents waiting to meet with Council President Kerry Nelson and 7th Ward Councilwoman Monica Galloway at a meeting in a room off City Council Chambers to discuss the urban forestry plan Friday, Feb. 24. After Nelson and Galloway arrived, EVM Editor Worth-Nelson was told to leave because, Galloway and the City Clerk said, the meeting did not meet the criteria of a “meeting” under the Open Meetings Act and thus press could be denied access. Though there was not a quorum of council members present, the meeting had not been publicly announced 24 hours beforehand. (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

At a recent neighborhood meeting the College and Cultural Neighborhood Association, President Mike Keeler said that after a recent bike ride around the neighborhood he found 180 stumps of freshly cut trees. On inspection, some of the trees were diseased or dying and clearly needed to be cut down.   However, a good many others seemed to be perfectly healthy and may have suffered only from being ‘elderly’ in tree years, (which, I assume, are somewhat longer than dog years).

The meeting, and later inquiries as cited in Jan’s story, produced conflicting sets of facts and figures about the cost of trimming a tree as opposed to cutting it down. The well intentioned, and needed program, faced a rising tide of distrust. Some of it may have been the fault of the Genesee Conservation District, the companies they hired, or the City of Flint. Much of it may have been a reflection of the high level of distrust we have in nearly all organized institutions today.

In any case, cutting back on the distrust may be a more challenging job than taking a chainsaw to a few dead trees. But the job needs to be done and in the long run should be more rewarding and more important.

As a first step in restoring trust, there are a few questions that need to be answered about Flint’s tree cutting program.

  • What is the real criteria for deciding when a tree should be cut down? When it’s dead? Or when it’s going to cost too much to trim it over the next few years? I suspect that the residents could live with an honest answer to the question.
  • Is there a contract between the GCD, the tree cutting companies, and the City of Flint? What does that contract spell out about who gets paid and how much they get paid for their services? What does it say about who has the right to sell the wood from the trees? Has there been a violation of the contract?
  • Is there a meaningful way to communicate with property owners who are about to have their trees cut down? Do they have the ability to respond or object?
  • What are the plans to replace the trees in the near future?
  • Will the GCD, the CCNA and the Flint City Council work with residents to assure that there is full transparency and the all the relevant information is available to the media and the public?

To be honest, this probably isn’t the biggest problem facing the city of Flint today. We still have the water crisis and the ever changing Karegnondi Pipeline plans, with all their massive financial implications. But in an atmosphere of distrust, a truly honest response to these questions, with honest answers, will be a first step towards restoring the battered level of trust with the citizens of Flint.

EVM political columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at





Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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