Drew Potocki, his late mother Eileen and her prized blue spruce (courtesy: Drew Potocki)“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”—William Blake
“A tree's a tree. How many more do you need to look at?”—Ronald Reagan
If you know and appreciate trees in San Diego, you've probably heard the name Drew Potocki.
While the city of Los Angeles boasts two urban forestry departments, San Diego must make do with one urban forester. That would be Potocki, who 13 years ago basically created the position from thin air.
A disclaimer: Spin Cycle for years has been acquainted with and admired the vast horticultural knowledge stored in this Detroit native, Texas A&M graduate and 25-year city employee. Mention a street, and Potocki, from memory, can talk about the tree species lining that thoroughfare. Put simply, the tree guy rocks.
So, when Spin Cycle learned that an unspecified, city-classified horticulturist was poised under the gleaming budget ax of Mayor Jerry Sanders, Spin's first reaction was, “He can't be talking about Potocki.”
But he was.
“Well, my entire board was—what's the correct term?—pissed off,” Vicki Estrada recalled. A well-established urban designer, Estrada heads the city's Community Forest Advisory Board. And in that capacity, word that San Diego could be losing its only urban forester was almost too much to bear.
“I'm trying not to get emotional,” Estrada said with clear difficulty. “Frankly, this is not about Drew personally. This is about the commitment of our city to our quality of life, and, frankly, urban forestry is the No. 1 thing you can do to reduce energy costs, storm-water costs, the list goes on and on. I've got so many studies that show just that.”
The research is indeed vast: that trees clean the air and filter the storm runoff; provide a less environmentally detrimental cooling effect than, say, air conditioning; help sidewalks last longer because the sun is no friend to concrete; pump up property values; and, yes, even reduce crime.
It's no secret that each of those values has monetary consequences for a city struggling to squeeze blood from its budgetary turnip. But it raises the question, just how much of your nose do you cut off to save your face?
Mayoral spokesperson Alex Roth didn't want to talk about specific city job positions, but he stressed that all job cuts that the city's had to wrestle with in recent weeks to eliminate a $179 million budget gap have been “excruciating.”
“The mayor has absolutely recognized that all of these cuts are going to be painful,” he told Spin Cycle this week. “The mayor and his staff and the various departments have spent hundreds of hours in long, agonizing discussions about all of these issues and looking at all of these numbers and what the short- and long-term impacts would be.”
But when pushed for details on the deliberations about eliminating the city's only urban forester, Roth replied, “I don't want to get too specific.”
During budget discussions earlier this month, Potocki—along with many of his supporters—appeared before the City Council to make the case why the position should be spared, including the fun fact that his knowledge of what trees work and don't along San Diego's streets over the years has saved the city $45 million in now-unneeded sidewalk repairs.
Since he became the city street division's urban forester in 1996, San Diego has 30,000 more street trees, he added. What he didn't mention was that because of his work creating bonds with state agencies and various nonprofits like the Urban Corps, the city is able get these trees in the ground for as little as $38 apiece.
What Potocki also didn't mention was that just before testifying that day, he had learned that his mother, Eileen, had died. Friends say it was his mother who instilled in him his appreciation of trees, including a fondness for blue spruce.
And perhaps it was her influence that day when city bean counters looked around and determined that, lo and behold, perhaps the city could pay for Potocki's services through the utility undergrounding fees it collects. As a result, a job—an entire department, really—was rescued.
Spin Cycle wanted to talk to Potocki to understand what lay ahead for him and San Diego's trees, but the Mayor's office refused to grant permission for an interview.
“Basically, the approach we're taking is that on all issues involving budget stuff, all the cuts and all the decisions about what to save and what not to save, the point person for all that is Jay Goldstone,” Roth explained.
Roth offered to put Spin Cycle in touch with Goldstone, the city's chief operating officer, but later said he couldn't locate him. When asked if an interview with Potocki could be limited to tree-related questions, Roth declined. “There's been a bunch of different media that have all wanted to talk to him. It's been pretty much the same response for everybody.”
Estrada, the Community Forest Advisory Board chairperson, expressed disappointment at the mayor's response. “They said you can't talk to him? How can they say that? What are they afraid of?” she wrote in an e-mail.
It's puzzling, too, considering that Sanders in the past has shared the spotlight with Potocki when San Diego was designated a Tree City USA, a distinction it's held for seven years, or when the mayor spoke at the Society of Municipal Arborists annual conference when it gathered here in late 2008.
When she was appointed head of the advisory board, Estrada invited Sanders to a board retreat, where he seemed enthusiastic about the value of trees in the city. She's not so sure now.
“Drew talks about it all the time: San Diego's tree canopy is shrinking,” Estrada said. “Unfortunately, the priority of our urban forest has gone down, down, down. It's like saying, ‘I'm short of money this week so I'm not going to eat breakfast,' knowing in return that your medical bills will triple afterwards. Does that make sense? Well, that's what's going to happen.”
When Potocki appeared before council, he said, “I was hired to be the person to speak for the trees. The trees cannot speak for me.”
Fortunately, enough people spoke up to make a difference. And San Diego is better off for it.
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