Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

Committee Member Resigns, Triggers Investigation of Fair Political Practices Commission

Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

“Shocked.” “Frustrated.” “Very uncomfortable.” “Just really, really annoyed.” Those were the sentiments expressed Tuesday evening by the Santa Barbara City Council as they voted through gritted teeth to deny a Lomita Road homeowner’s petition to remove a large deodar cedar tree from her front yard.

The council’s issue wasn’t with the homeowner or her request, however. Marilyn Goldman had followed the application process to a T and made a compelling case for why the tree should go. Instead, their intense displeasure lay with an appointed member of the city’s Street Tree Advisory Committee, who lobbied and conspired behind the scenes to save the cedar and allegedly broke open government laws in the process.

“Dishonest.” “Unfair.” “Arrogant.” That was how councilmembers described the conduct of Bob Cunningham, who has since resigned from the committee and triggered an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Goldman, who suffers from painful spinal stenosis and limited mobility, submitted her application August 3, arguing that the 70-something-year-old tree and its bulbous roots made accessing her driveway and walkway difficult. Goldman said she hated to remove the healthy tree, as she’s lived at the house for 35 years and always given it good care, but she now worried about tripping over the uneven ground. She offered to plant another tree in its place.

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The Street Tree Advisory Committee (STAC) voted 5-0 to deny Goldman’s petition, countering she could make accessibility improvements to her front yard without sacrificing one of the neighborhood’s finest specimens. The committee’s recommendation then went to the Parks and Recreation Commission, which deadlocked at 3-3. After 60 days, per city rules, the tied vote defaulted to an approval to take out the cedar. Over two dozen of Goldman’s neighbors, citing concerns for her health, had written the Commission in support of her.

It was then that Cunningham, a landscape architect who’d served on STAC for 14 years and still currently sits on the city’s Architectural Board of Review, took it upon himself to file an appeal of the Commission’s approval in an apparent conflict of interest and violation of government ethics rules. Cunningham privately notified the other STAC members of his intention via email, secretly strategized with city staff, and even started a collection to help him pay the $300 fee. Unrelated tree removal appeals were also discussed.

No one on the email chains, including Nathan Slack, the city’s urban forest superintendent, spoke up. As if those optics weren’t bad enough, Cunningham also waved off Goldman’s petition as “an old lady’s health issues” and suggested her request was simply a matter of “convenience.”

In her comments Tuesday, Goldman ― a bereavement counselor at Hospice of Santa Barbara and clinical supervisor for the Rape Crisis Center ― took Cunningham to task. “I am disappointed that the city appoints citizen advisors who openly dismiss and deride fellow citizens by conflating accessibility, a civil right, with convenience,” she said. “This is a personal safety issue.” As to the “old lady” comment, Goldman fumed. “That’s a lot of -isms ― ageism, ableism, sexism ― in one sentence.”

Goldman also blasted the process by which the appeal reached the City Council, wondering how its members could even be considering it if the road getting there was so pockmarked with impropriety. “How can homeowners be expected to follow the city’s rules and regulations when members of the committees, before which homeowners appear, don’t?” she asked, before turning her attention to Slack. “Why is city staff permitted to behave in dishonest ways with total lack of transparency?”

Cunningham attempted to defend his comments. “I understand how Ms. Goldman has been offended by what I said, but I meant no offense,” he began. “I am 75 years old. I have many old friends, many friends who are old, and many friends who are old ladies. My best friend is an old lady, and we’ve been married for 34 years.” Cunningham, however, also doubled down on his insistence that Goldman was only considering her own comfort. “Essentially, Ms. Goldman’s request is based solely on convenience, disregarding the benefits the tree provides to the neighborhood and larger urban forest.”

Cunningham admitted his back-door dealings were inappropriate. “I absolutely made mistakes, and with regard to the Fair Political Practices Commission, I may end up paying a penalty, for which I will be sorry, I’m sure,” he said. “But I’m not sorry for pursuing this appeal, because I believe it has merit and I do not want to drop it.” As he fell on his sword, he made one last comment about Goldman and her health. “Removing the tree won’t make her pain go away,” he said.

Councilmember Michael Jordan bristled at the statement. “Maybe not,” he said, “but it would potentially allow a 66-year-old woman to extend living independently at her house.” Nevertheless, Jordan continued, he couldn’t in good conscience vote to remove the tree as he, like the majority of the other councilmembers, didn’t think Goldman had sufficiently explored other ways of making her front yard and driveway more navigable. During site visits, staff had suggested she could prune the cedar’s roots, repave her front walkway, widen the driveway, and so on.

Still, Jordan said, he resented the way certain city representatives had conducted themselves during the appeal process. Jordan and the other councilmembers never referred to Slack or Cunningham by name, but it was clear to whom they were referring. “You have a staff member talking to people behind the scenes,” he said, referencing potential violations of the Brown Act, which prohibits public officials from discussing legislative issues in private, “and you have an appointed city member acting in a condescending and tone-deaf manner toward Ms. Goldman and her predicament. … This is really just a mess we find ourselves in.”

Councilmembers Friedman, Harmon, and Sneddon and Mayor Cathy Murillo echoed Jordan, explaining they harbored “strong concerns” about how the appeal was handled but still believed Goldman should explore alternative remedies. “There are options for the resident to live there and for the tree to remain,” Murillo said. Nevertheless, she said, “Shame that has been brought on the process and the city. We’re supposed to have integrity and conduct ourselves with integrity.” Murillo promised inquiries would be made and appropriate actions taken.

Councilmembers Oscar Gutierrez and Alejandra Gutierrez (no relation) voted in Goldman’s favor and empathized with her ill feelings toward the city. “I want to apologize for this entire experience you’ve had to go through,” Oscar said. “We will address the problems that have been talked about tonight.”

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