By Jan Worth-Nelson
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to indicate that an email request for a ballot is not one of the options for voting.
While much of the nation obsesses about a speculated coming “blue wave” in primaries and midterms, one Flint neighborhood association is focusing its activism on a much more local contest—and angling for what its members hope will be a consequent “green wave” affecting the city’s landscape.
Volunteers from the College Cultural Neighborhood Association (CCNA) have been posting on Facebook, making phone calls and going door to door with flyers alerting residents to a March 22 election of directors to the board of the Genesee Conservation District. There are three open seats on the five-member board.
Any resident of Genesee County of legal voting age can cast a ballot.
The details of the election are quirky. Although the Conservation District has two offices, one on Elms Road and another on First Street downtown, the election is being held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 22 at Asbury Park United Methodist Church, 1653 Davison Road.
Residents can vote at Asbury United Methodist on March 22 from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.or vote in person at the district office at 1525 N Elms Rd. (Elms at Beecher Road); weekdays 8-4:30 p.m.; or can request an absentee ballot from the GCD by calling (810) 820-2681, Ext.3. Absentee ballots must be received at the Conservation District by March 21.
Two four-year terms and one partial term ending in 2019 are on the ballot.
Candidates for the two four-year seats include Erin Caudell, Andrew Everman, Caroline Kellogg, and David Lossing.
Candidates for the single partial term opening are Lauri Elbing, Kristen Miner, and Candice Mushatt.
Bios of the candidates are available at the GCD website.
The CCNA activists have endorsed three of the candidates: Kellogg and Miner, both residents of the CCN with advanced training in biology and botany, and Everman, a current GCD board member who has volunteered extensively in the neighborhood and has been a frequent critic of GCD management.
The election, like the issue that has galvanized the CCNA, has a history and has generated its own supply of drama. In the last few years, CCNA activists have been motivated most by one issue—trees. A detailed history and overview is available here and here.
The Genesee Conservation District, run by administrator Angela Warren, is neither a non-profit nor a for-profit organization, it is an entity of state government — one of 78 such conservation districts in the state — making its relationship with the City of Flint a public-public collaborative partnership.
It has played a role in implementing the city’s “Imagine Flint” master plan and has provided natural resource conservation and forestry expertise on projects such as the Max Brandon Eco park, the Lewis Street Expansion, Cronin Derby Downs Duck Habitat, the annual Arbor Day celebration and naturalization work at Atherton Park.
The GCD also provides environmental brush thinning and tree trimming, invasive species removal, assistance with signing and environmental education materials, according to Adam Moore, associate planner in the City of Flint Planning and Zoning Division.
It was the GCD’s role in city tree management that has brought it in conflict with the CCNA. Several years ago, CCN residents noticed a sudden surge in tree removal from the city-owned “tree lawns” between sidewalks and the street in the neighborhood — where residents particularly value their canopy of silver and Norway maples. Touring the area on his bike, CCNA president Mike Keeler counted close to 200 stumps in one summer just in his neighborhood alone.
In the conversations that followed, CCNA residents led by Keeler, himself a trained wildlife biologist, questioned criteria used to select which of the trees–many near the end of their 75-year life span–should come down or be trimmed and saved. Also, CCNA leaders expressed concern about whether the removed trees would be replaced, and offered their own strategies to purchase and replace them–a plan which was for most of the past months derailed by city officials citing liability and cost concerns.
According to the handout being dropped door to door, CCNA leaders say they discovered “questionable practices, such as no bid contracts” for tree removal and conflicts of interest. One GCD employee left when it was discovered she was a family member of one of the tree removal contractors.
CCNA leaders also have complain of what they said has been poor communication between the GCD and the community — particularly on when trees were targeted for removal and what criteria were being implemented.
In its handout, CCNA neighbors wrote, “A group of your neighbors took our concerns to the Mayor, City Council and GCD. The GCD promised to work with us, but over the past year, their actions contradicted their promises. We still have the problems of protecting our mature trees and getting new trees planted.” CCNA activists say they hope shaking up the board membership might move their cause along..
GCD spokespersons contended from the start of the controversies that they are acting in the interest of the “urban forest” but have been hampered by limited resources. Warren has explained the GCD has been implementing recommendations of a massive 2015 tree inventory in which every tree on city-owned property was examined and rated as to its condition. Of the 30,000 trees inventoried, about 2,000 were indicated as “critical removals” — constituting a liability and safety hazard — and another 4,000 tagged “immediate removals.” But the city’s resources are stretched so thin that the GCD could only replace about 100 trees a year in the whole city, GCD sources said.
The CCNA proceeded to raise about $4,000 for new trees in the CCNA and volunteers offered to plant them — but were told by city officials not to because of liability concerns. However, new trees did begin appearing in the tree lawns in the CCN, planted surreptitiously by anonymous arborists who began to be tagged as “tree fairies.”
CCNA vice-president Sherry Hayden was among those expressing further concerns about the election process itself. There was initial confusion about whether ballot requests could be made via email, based on nonbinding “best practices” recommended in the Conservation District Operations Handbook for the State of Michigan.
“We attended the Feb 14 Conservation district meeting and when we asked about the elections, no one said they were not going to allow emailing. They finally notified us three weeks before the election that emails would not be accepted. We have no idea whether everyone who requested via email was notified that email is not an option,” Hayden said.
A GCD spokeswoman said today that those who had attempted to get a ballot via email had been notified that was not an option.
In an email, Hayden continued, “Conservation law in Michigan is based upon a 1998 bill, revised in 2002, that passed in Michigan. The rules for the election are vague. It turns out the administrator [Warren] will be part of the team counting the ballots (to hire her bosses.) The board did not know who else would be on the committee. We told the board this is a conflict of interest. The board chair told us the board got it okayed by someone at the State.”
EVM is awaiting a response from the GCD about who will be counting the ballots.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.