By Jan Worth-Nelson
Advocates for Flint’s urban forest — both in the Genesee Conservation District (GCD) and the “grassroots” of a contentiously active neighborhood association — are taking a deep breath today after the election of three new directors for the GCD board that produced the largest turnout of voters for a usually sleepy plebiscite since 2004.
The election, hyperlocal and idiosyncratic from the start, was held at the Eastside’s Asbury United Methodist Church for only three hours over a weekday lunch hour. As Paul Rozycki details in his upcoming April column, the parking lot on the sunny, cold spring day was full, and residents– many from the nearby College Cultural Neighborhood Association (CCNA)–lined up cheerfully waiting their turn. Everybody seemed to know everybody else. The ballot box was a large birdhouse, which filled quickly with folded-up green ballots. By the end of the brief vote, everybody rushed back to work or to let the dog out or relieve babysitters, and 511 ballots had been cast.
The issue behind the voters’ willingness to interrupt their day, it seems, was the city’s trees — who decides when they’re too old and need to come down, and when and how to replace them. The story of the CCNA’s defensive passion for its canopies of trees emerged parallel to one of the city’s worst crises in decades, the water crisis. The fate of the canopies in the CCN, majestically gnarled but aged silver maples near the end of their life cycle, perhaps became for some residents in the face of a bigger powerlessness a fight worth having.
‘This saga of the trees has been so long and sad,” CCN resident Edythe Peake said on Facebook today. “Every tree stump was like a wound in the neighborhood soil. Every time I see a tree cut down it’s like having a phantom pain from an amputated limb.”
Eventually the election became more than that — a referendum on the administration of the Conservation District itself, run by CCN resident Angela Warren. Critics of the GCD pointed to no-bid contracts, alleged conflicts of interests, and what the CCNA representatives said was a lack of transparency.
“It made us feel fantastic to see so many of our neighbors coming out on their lunch hour and bringing their coworkers with them to vote for the neighborhood and for our trees,” CCNA President Mike Keeler said.
He and others scrutinized and criticized the election process closely. In the end, he summarized, “We did very well considering the process is deeply flawed. There needs to be a better voting system for Michigan conservation elections. There are too many irregularities in the process for the absentee ballots. An independent third party would remedy the issues.”
Elected to the board for four-year terms were Erin Caudell and Caroline Kellogg. Elected to a one-year term was Kristin Miner. All have substantial backgrounds and expertise in horticulture or wildlife biology. The other candidates were Lauri Elbing, Andrew Everman, David Lossing and Candice Mushatt.
Many were surprised that Everman, an avid “urban forest” activist who had been part of a three-person slate including Kellogg and Miner, lost by three votes. Those three candidates were supported by many in the CCN, including CCNA president Mike Keeler and vice president Sherry Hayden, though they insisted throughout that the three were not official endorsements of the CCNA but rather their personal preferences. Backers of the slate hoped if all three got elected, they might operate as a block to carry forward the critiques of the GCD and implement changes in how it does business.
“There was so much interest in this election because a lot of people that I have talked to are troubled about the amount of parkway trees that have been removed from our neighborhood in the last one and a half years, with no good plan for replacing,” CCNA Vice-president Sherry Hayden wrote in an email.
While the group of CCN activists got only two out of three of their preferred slate, they say they are hopeful the fresh voices on the board will help shape the future of the GCD.
“Caroline [Kellogg] and Kristen [Miner] are qualified and interested in all the issues managed by the conservation district., Hayden said. “We think they will be fantastic and valuable additions to the board. They are only two voices, so we expect we will still have to be vigilant to protect our Flint street trees, to ensure healthy ones are not removed while dead, dangerous ones remain. Andy [Everman] Kris and Caroline all want the neighborhood to know that they are grateful for the support, and we are grateful to them for stepping up, for volunteering to serve and protect our environment.”
GCD administrator Warren acknowledged interest in the election was record-setting — drawing the most voters in 14 years. Asked what propelled the interest, Warren commented, “It seems as if all of the candidates actively campaigned for this election, which brought out the voters. The results of the election suggest to me that the community is interested in the District’s mission and future.”
“As we move ahead, we remain focused on promoting natural resource conservation in our community,” Warren wrote in an email the day after the election.
In response to CCN residents’ concerns about vote tally fairness, she stated, “Representatives from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development were present during the election and ballot counting. Two representatives from neighboring Conservation Districts tallied and counted the ballots. Also, a few community members from the College Cultural Neighborhood were present during the ballot counting.”
CCN residents were especially concerned about how absentee ballots were deployed by the GCD. “About 55 percent of the votes came in absentee, and that happens to be where their chosen candidates did very well,” CCNA Vice President Sherry Hayden said, asserting that “no third parties were there to monitor that process.”
Warren contested that claim, repeating in an email to EVM, “Two representatives from neighboring cds [conservation districts] tallied and counted all ballot votes, absentee and day of election (from Asbury).”
The Genesee Conservation District 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.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.