Trees in the City of Goleta are thriving despite governmental machinations and budget shortages involving their care. Ken Knight, executive director of the tree-planting organization Goleta Valley Beautiful, resigned from the city’s Planning Commission late last year to quiet concerns about a conflict of interest. And the state’s budget woes have resulted in a freeze of grant monies, bringing to a halt development of the city’s Urban Forest Master Plan.
It all started with a grant application to the state to partially fund the two-year, $190,000 tree master plan. More than half of that would come from matching contributions from area donors and volunteer labor, but $80,000 would come from the state. A total of $47,000 would go to Goleta Valley Beautiful.
But when the new City Attorney Tim Giles was finalizing the contract between the city and Goleta Valley Beautiful, he decided there was a potential conflict of interest as Knight, a sitting planning commissioner, was going to benefit from a city contract.
At the November 18 City Council meeting, the council accepted Knight’s resignation, rescinded the contract with Goleta Valley Beautiful, then authorized the City Manager to execute a new agreement with the nonprofit, supposedly now conflict-free. Then-mayor Michael Bennett recused himself from the vote as he’s on the Goleta Valley Beautiful Board of Directors, but Councilmember Roger Aceves voted against giving Goleta Valley Beautiful the contract. He still believes the contract is inappropriate.
Aceves, now the city’s mayor, points to a law prohibiting elected officials from doing business, for one year, with the governmental body from which they have departed. The law applies to elected politicians, and Knight was an appointee, but Aceves believes the spirit of the law should apply in this case.
“It doesn’t look good. It’s not good government,” he said, adding that he also is uncomfortable with the fact that the Goleta Valley Beautiful project manager for the Urban Forest Master Plan is a Santa Barbara City College student. Moreover, the contract should have gone out for bid, he said. “The process should have been more transparent.”
For his part, Knight defended the contract and the process by which it came about. The project did not go through a formal request for proposals process because Goleta Valley Beautiful helped develop the project, and as a partner with the city, applied for the grant.
Nor would Knight be paid. He is volunteering his services and is listed in the grant application as a “volunteer arborist/forester.” That’s why a City College student, Mark Broomfield, is the paid project manager. Knight also takes offense at people criticizing Broomfield’s credentials.
“I agreed to work for free,” said Knight, who didn’t want to resign from the Planning Commission. “I wasn’t going to receive financial benefit from this project.” As for Broomfield, “He’s my protege, he’s been working in tree care, he was volunteer of the year for our organization. I would be advising him, working side-by-side in the field.”
Knight also addressed another concern - that during site visits as a planning commissioner he would talk to developers about trees, promoting Goleta Valley Beautiful’s services. He said, “I will always talk about trees. But if we are talking about urban forest policy, that’s an issue. There’s a world of difference.” Knight said he never had to recuse himself from Planning Commission decisions because an urban forestry matter came up.
Indeed, Knight has broken no laws, according to city Community Services Director Steve Wagner. “Ken is a passionate advocate for his cause,” said Wagner, who acknowledged Knight’s success in securing grant monies and aggressive leadership in making Goleta Valley more beautiful. Still, he wants the public to know the city will always act in the “best interest of Goleta, not in the best interest of Goleta Valley Beautiful.”
Added Bob Wignot, member of Goleta’s Design Review Board and member of the street tree subcommittee, “Goleta Valley Beautiful has done some fine things… The organization and its volunteers are doing a fine job.”
That job is on hold for now. Goleta’s Urban Forest Master Plan funding from the state is frozen until California starts selling bonds again, boosting government coffers. As for Goleta Valley Beautiful, its projects are either halted or going forward in a minimal way with volunteer labor. For the time being, Knight is not getting paid anything, he said. Any work he’s doing is all for the trees.
CLARIFICATION: After the posting of this article, Ken Knight pointed out that the primary median landscaping work was done by the now-defunct Goleta Median Landscaping Corporation and that the primary responsibility for median maintenance is done through City of Goleta and Santa Barbara County staff and contractors.