City Responds in Fired Arborist Lawsuit


(APN) ATLANTA — The City of Atlanta has responded in a lawsuit brought by Tom Coffin, Ph.D, the former Chief Arborist for the City of Atlanta who was fired in July of 2008.

As previously reported by several outlets including the New York Times newspaper last year, Coffin produced evidence to the City in July 2008 that, while he had cited 70 violations of the tree code–a code which he had helped write–since the start of the year, his subordinates altogether had only cited 12 violations. When he prepared to discipline his subordinates for not enforcing the City Code he was abruptly dismissed on July 29, 2008.

The City denied his assertions of being fired for doing his job. In their rebuttal, obtained by Atlanta Progressive News, they presented the tree laws as a guideline rather than policy. The City presented him in their written response as making numerous groundless accusations against his subordinates, generating “his own tables” showing the other Arborists were not enforcing the Tree Protection Ordinance. They asked the case be dismissed.

“I was really pressuring my subordinates to enforce the law, there was no law enforcement going on; instead of doing that they fired me,” Coffin told APN in an interview. “To me the law is very important. It was working but it has to be enforced. Things are sliding back tremendously now with the reemergence of arborists with a pick up truck and a chain saw doing whatever they want.”

Mr. Coffin began his career in Atlanta at Emory University a graduate student in English in 1967. He became radicalized by the War in Vietnam and went into organizing drilling crews. He was a crew operator for 11 years. In addition, Tom and his wife, Stephanie Coffin, were two of the original co-founders of the Great Speckled Bird newspaper, which predated Creative Loafing and was Atlanta’s essential alternative publication from the 1960s through the 1980s.

Coffin began climbing trees in 1986. He went to University of Georgia and got his PhD in 1995 in Forestry and Sociology. In 2000 after teaching, he became a Field Arborist. In 2006 he became a Senior Field Arborist.

Tom Coffin was responsible, along with others, for writing the City’s current Tree Protection Ordinance.

The 1990s reversed two decades of declining population in the City of Atlanta. As developers from the suburbs began to build, Coffin and others became concerned that they would clear cut land.

“Metro Atlanta is 17 counties and you can see the difference when you fly over and see the red clay instead of trees in areas which are unregulated,” Coffin said. In 1997 Coffin was invited to join the Tree Conservation Committee and devised the Tree Protection Ordinance. This was adopted in 1999 and in 2000 the city got four new arborists to enforce the code.

“If you are going to remove trees… you can get one of three permits, dead, dying, and hazardous trees removed and those permits are free. Then you have building and landscaping permits. If these are healthy trees, the builder must pay a recompense to the City. Recompense is defined as the loss of public value.”

The new law made it very expensive to take down a tree that was not a hazard nor dying. Developers previously had haphazardly stamped trees around their plans, not noting the location or size of the real trees which they intended to bulldoze, Coffin said. After being fined they began to note the trees that were present as well as their size and location, Coffin said. Cost is a major issue in reforming the behavior of contractors. With the new law, plans had to be approved and after a few fines, suddenly builders were 90% correct on the size and location of trees, according to Coffin.

Coffin began issuing quarterly reports in 2006. He became aware some arborists were not doing their jobs. “Builders do not want special favors, they want fairness,” Coffin said. “They want transparency, accountability, efficiency, and protection from corruption.”

When Steven Cover became Commissioner of Planning in 2006, he hired Ibrahim Maslimani, who brought 20 people with him, Coffin said. In the opinion of Coffin, Maslimani had no interest in the tree law because he felt it hampered building.

“The Bureau of Buildings says they have taken a stand of accommodation toward contractors. They are pretending they are enforcing the law,” Coffin told APN.

In the meantime, Coffin claims he was assured by his superior that he was correct and the discipline process he had proposed against the arborists would go forward. Instead he was fired.

On July 31, 2008, Coffin wrote a letter with data on that year to Mayor Shirley Franklin, City Council Members and concerned citizens on his firing and enforcement in the city.

On August 18, 2008, Council Member and current Mayoral candidate, Mary Norwood, presses for an investigation of Coffin’s firing.

On August 26, 2008, Gregory J. Giornelli, Chief Operating Officer, wrote a letter to the investigating team stating that Tom Coffin was fired for not being a team player. On August 28, Coffin writes back a rebuttal in which he states the letter is covering up problems at the Division.

On October 10, 2008, the City completed their internal investigation, concluding Tom Coffin is not a team player, that he used fines instead of negotiation, and that he can be fired “at will.”

As previously reported on APN’s blog, Coffin announced intent to file suit against the City, using the whistleblower statute, in December 2008. The City had 30 days to respond affirmatively to Coffin’s letter.

Then, Coffin filed suit in January 2009.

At present the lawsuit is in the discovery phase. Coffin’s lawyers put in a long list for documents and some interrogatories. The City has asked for an extension until June 21, 2009. Coffin says he thinks they are going to stall it out as long as they can.

About the author:

Alice Gordon is a Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at

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