Recent “spruce-up” actions may have led to the city of Creighton losing its state arboretum status.
Is the arboretum in jeopardy?
Probably not, according to an official with the Nebraska Statewide Arboretem, but a 30-year affiliation with the state system will be lost if no curator is on board.
Creighton Mayor Chris Patrick opened the May 9 meeting of Creighton’s city council with a lengthy address regarding issues that led up to cancellation of an Arbor Day program scheduled in Bruce Park last month and the resignation of the entire Creighton Tree Board.
“I was called by some people on the tree board, as well as park, about the park (on Wednesday, April 24). I was out of town at that particular moment and came back to town. As soon as I got back, I immediately began speaking with people, as well as drove through the park. I also drove through the park approximately three times every day I was in town since that day, to look at it. I talked to Lindsay (Nelson), I talked to all the guys, everyone involved,” he said. “I did not find anyone who did any malice or ill intentions done, or anything purposely, and I made it very clear that if that was the intent that there would be repercussions.”
The mayor said the tree-trimming occurred the week prior to receiving the April 24 calls, which took him by surprise.
He pointed out that, by ordinance, the city has the authority to plant, prune and remove trees at city officials’ discretion.
While he admitted mistakes were made, the mayor said that the city had received just as many supportive comments as complaints.
“I feel the mistake the city made was not being respectful enough of our tree board and our volunteers there, and our park board and our volunteers there,” Patrick said.
He outlined two remedies to avoid recurrence of the situation: The city staff needs to consult the tree or park boards on matters that concern them, and the city will consider engaging an arborist before pruning trees in the future.
The five-member Creighton Tree Board, including the arboretum curator, Jan Jorgensen, collectively submitted a resignation to the city leaders in a packed city hall meeting room last Thursday night.
Steve Mattern read a “board report” that listed a number of issues and included the resignation of board members, Jorgensen, Mary Tusha, Jean Hammer, Dan Sanborn and himself.
“It now appears that the tree board has failed to educate the current decision makers within our city staff and council,” Mattern read. “This became quite obvious to the tree board members when they witnessed the blatant disrespect for the arboretum and what the board has worked so hard to achieve, when city workers went to the park and radically butchered dozens of trees.
“The tree board has yet to determine the motives behind the action. It makes no sense to us. When queried, a member of the city staff stated the action was necessary in order not to be ‘slapped in the face’ when mowing around trees.
“This could not be a valid reason as the city tree board, along with numerous other volunteers, expended hundreds of hours over many years, and especially in the last few years, adequately mulching the trees in the arboretum in such a way as to eliminate the need to radically trim the trees for the sole purpose of mowing around it.”
The report also cited training obtained by tree board members, in addition to the requirements for Nebraska Statewide Arboretum affiliation.
“The bottom line is that each species must be trimmed in the proper season, and those doing the trimming must have that knowledge,” Mattern continued. “Yet, the members of the city staff did not contact any member of the tree board to obtain advice or discuss the need or desire to trim the park trees, nor did they stop trimming when asked to do so.
“Additionally, it should be noted that many of the trees in the arboretum were donated and planted in memory of someone’s loved ones.”
The report ended with the resignation and a statement: “As of this date, you will have neither an arboretum curator nor a tree board, as we collectively tender our resignation. This decision was not made lightly. This decision is made as we believe that the vision for the arboretum, and that the Creighton Tree Board possessed, is mutually exclusive from the individuals making decisions for the City of Creighton. We are not discouraged. We are defeated.”
As she handed printed copies of the report to city officials, Jorgensen said, “As the curator of the arboretum - former curator - I feel compelled to put in the rest of the signs that we have for those that were memorial trees and I will present to you the Tree City USA flags for the 28th year and 13 years for the additional educational effort that we received for the growth award.”
The tree board members had written their resignation after the curator found the extent of cutting earlier in April, but planned to proceed with the April 27 Arbor Day program until, on a visit to the park on Wednesday, April 24, Tusha found chain saws buzzing again, this time on shrubs. She said she approached the worker, who did not stop sawing, after which she contacted her co-board members and the mayor.
Tree books, which have typically been presented to each school at the annual program, were delivered to the schools after the program was cancelled.
Tusha said she has contacted two state foresters and one has since visited Creighton to examine the damaged trees.
“Our district forester has been through the park and in an email, wrote, ‘What a shame that some looked to be over 50% pruned, it’s not good for the health of a tree to be pruned that much,’” she said.
According to the mayor, previous park caretaker, Larry Schwindt, had pruned trees, which was confirmed by Tusha, but she said he always asked the board for permission.
When asked who the current caretaker is, Patrick said, “Mark (Moser), Alan (Novacek) and Kevin (Sonnichsen).”
At Thursday’s meeting, Tusha told the council, “It is a beautiful park and I think it always will be, but it is not an arboretum without the things stated, and that arboretum sign could be taken down if you don’t get a curator or park board.”
Justin Evertson, green infrastructure coordinator with Nebraska Forest Service and the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, when contacted by the News, said the state tree agencies will not require the Bruce Park Arboretum sign be removed. He said if Jorgensen’s resignation stands, and no one steps up to take leadership, he anticipates state affiliation would be dropped fairly quickly.
“The park can still be called an arboretum whether it is affiliated with NSA or not,” he said. “We would request that any signage mentioning affiliation with NSA be removed, but we would not be heavy handed or demanding about that.”
Tusha added, “One purpose of an arboretum is to educate the public on tree care. The state forester said the pruning done in the Creighton park was a bad example of how to prune trees.”
The mayor said members of the tree and park boards had been invited to attend a meeting at noon Monday, May 6.
“The only person that came was (park board member) Todd Zimmerer,” he said.
Other park board members are Cory Frisch, Toni Tauber and Amy Borgmann.
Jorgensen voiced disappointment in timing of the meeting, “quite a ways after the fact and most of us said we couldn’t attend - we were working or out of town,” she said. “I was hoping you would reschedule - if you really wanted to hear from those of us who were on the boards.”
Mattern said he had surgery that day.
Patrick replied he was unaware of conflicts.
“We emailed Lindsay and let her know we were unavailable,” Jorgensen said.
Council President Steve Morrill countered, “I was at the meeting. I had stuff to do also. I made the point to make it to the 12 o’clock meeting.”
Councilman Bob Jensen weighed in as well.
“We make the decisions, but we don’t run the day-to-day process,” he said. “The city has rules and codes and the tree board does have a code to go by. And their responsibilities are listed in that code. I’ve been here for six years and I have not been approached with any disrespect.”
Jensen read the city code pertaining to the tree board’s responsibility, which includes, in part, “study, investigate, counsel and develop and/or update annually and administrate a written plan for the care, preservation, pruning, planting, replanting, removal or disposal of all of trees and shrubs in parks, along streets and other public areas. Such plans will be presented annually to the city council.”
He said, “That plan will tell employees and the mayor what they want done.”
Drew Nelson said, “One thing I have seen when I went through the park, we have some huge pines down there that are dying. And before bugs come out, maybe need to be removed.”
And Creighton’s newest councilman, Mark Ripp, added his take: “I heard these people that all came for the tree board. Every month we have council meetings and, on the agenda is fire department, tree board, Keep America, Keep Creighton Beautiful. Since I’ve been on the council, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tree board member here - ever.”
Ripp added, “Without a volunteer to jump in with both feet I see nothing good out of this happening and it’s all going south, and the longer you wait the worse it’s going to be. I mean, the tree board can swallow their pride and jump back in with both feet and go again.”
The mayor said he planned to reach out to the tree board members, “because I do feel they are a valuable asset...I hope they will reconsider.”
Several community members spoke in support of tree and park board members.
Darla Frisch complimented previous programs held in the park, before asking a question of the mayor. “You said miscommunication - but were the tree board asked to be involved in that decision making before any trees were trimmed?”
Patrick answered, “No...it was a matter of trying to get it done before BerryPepper, and it really was an oversight.”
Vickie Belguim spoke regarding tree-pruning methods, “Some of the trunks, when they did the chain saw, it went right into the trunk, and they did not even try to fix it. The pine trees are leaking sap. You are supposed to put something over it so it blocks the sap. They did not look up anything.”
She asked, “Somebody gave the order, didn’t they research? Or do we just cut and don’t care?”
Patrick responded, “It wasn’t like that at all. It was trying to accomplish a job, an oversight on who was, or wasn’t, consulted.”
Tusha advised, “As you move forward...I hope, especially board members, volunteers who signed up to be volunteers on tree board, park board or recycling, whatever boards they’re on, can approach city workers and have a conversation with them. Because if they can’t, then some people may have more power than they should.”
Patrick agreed. “Please, and this is to everyone, if you ever encounter anything like that, please come to me...I am the mayor and the manager of this town. It doesn’t matter what happened, I am the only one responsible.”
When asked about the roles of mayor and city administrator in managing the city, Patrick explained that, although Creighton has a city administrator form of government, the administrator does not serve in a supervisory capacity and he handles employee management. He said his phone number is “readily available” and he is at his place of business, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 or 5 p.m., daily.
“Bruce Park was a special place for tree lovers,” Evertson said. “Whomever did the tree trimming there was really out of line and it baffles us how that could have happened, when the city clearly knew the site was an arboretum and that tree board members had a vision and generally took care of the trees. We’re still willing to work with the City of Creighton in trying to make the best of the situation.”
Jorgensen advised city officials to work with NFS and NSA.
“They will help,” she said. “Trees are resilient and trees will survive no matter what we do to them, but they won’t look like they are supposed to.”
The mayor ended the discussion, saying, “I can’t go back, wish I could. I just have to figure out what is the best way to go forward and put into place measures so it doesn’t happen again.”
Other city business addressed at the meeting included approval of an interlocal agreement with the Village of Winnetoon for mosquito spraying.
Creighton employees will spray the village once a week, from May 9 through Sept. 30, at $150 per application. When asked by a councilman, Sonnichsen said spraying will be done in the early morning or late evening hours and it will involve overtime.
A request was made from the audience to avoid spraying the Creighton ball fields during games.
Two electrical/HVAC bids were opened for work on the gingerbread house addition at SantaLand.
The low bid from Adams Electric, totaling $9,300 - $5,800 for electric work and $3,500 for HVAC - was accepted. The other bid, from Cowboy Electric, Jacob Bertschinger, totaled $19,822.
Among the expenses authorized for payment was $140,500 to Backwoods, a company selected to repair roofs after executive session at the March council meeting.
“The $140,500 was for materials for Blackwoods to get this project started,” ACT Nelson explained. “So far city has received $202,246.77 in revenue for the hail damage last summer. In the end, this will be a wash. But on the positive side, we will have a lot of new roofs.”
A committee comprised of the ACT, mayor, Morrill and Ripp met with a representative from Blackwoods to determine priority projects. Thus far, the library and sewer plant roofs have been replaced, but leaks have been reported at the senior center and the airport.
Councilmen heard the demolition project at 706 Main Street is now tentatively set for June 3.
Economic Development Director Susan Norris updated the council on her activities and said a committee had been formed and began meeting on LB840.
She reported concrete work would be completed on Downtown Revitalization Grant projects this spring. She also said $15,000 remaining in the DTR Grant Fund will be divided between two businesses, one that is waiting for demolition of the Main Street building.
Ripp, who is a member of the DTR Committee tasked with dispersing the grant funds, disagreed.
“I had a little discussion today with Lindsay (ACT Nelson) about the $15,000 left over from the DTR,” he said. “We had like 30-some thousand left and we earmarked Bazile Creek Power Sports and Lani Baller, we split it down the middle. Since then another $15,000 - apparently somebody took it upon themselves to earmark that for whatever.”
Norris said she was acting on information and decisions made prior to her employment and asked if she should contact Lowell Schroeder, a planner with the Northeast Nebraska Economic Development District, who oversees the projects.
The councilman said he would call Schroeder.