Officials upset with DTE’s tree-trimming management

DTE says correct process wasn't followed

By: Victoria Mitchell | Royal Oak Review | Published August 12, 2015


ROYAL OAK — Members of the City Commission expressed dismay with DTE Energy’s tree-trimming management last week, citing the company’s promises at a commission meeting months ago that recently seemed to have been ignored.

“I think we’re just all coming to terms with the fact that we’ve wasted an amazing amount of time listening to representatives from DTE explain away and make excuses for their actions in this and other regards,” said Commissioner Michael Fournier.

Fournier said DTE representatives sprayed white Xs on trees, preparing to take them down, and then distributed fliers to affected residents that implied the tree trimming is the city’s fault.

“To me that even fails from something that I thought was a failure to begin with, which was just a communication plan,” Fournier said. “I think we need to take decisive action here. I think that talk is cheap.
“I’m sure there are fine people that work for DTE, but they’re not working for the citizens of Royal Oak. They’re working for the folks that they pay dividends to, and to me, that’s a problem.”

Following the discussion during the City Commission’s Aug. 3 meeting, DTE Energy reached out to the city and covered up the white Xs marking trees for removal.

DTE Energy Regional Manager of Corporate and Government Affairs Michael Palchesko said DTE has a process in place, which includes communicating with a homeowner regarding a tree identified as possibly needing to come down before marking any Xs.

“Unfortunately the individual who was working along Whitcomb Street — I’m not sure why — didn’t follow that process and put Xs on the trees,” he said.

Palchesko said first a red ribbon should be tied around the tree and the homeowner contacted, and then after a homeowner signs a release, DTE would mark the tree for removal.

“This is the way the process is supposed to work and it’s unfortunate in this case the key step with the ribbon seemed to be missed,” he said.

Palchesko said DTE stopped the work and attempted to speak with impacted residents before covering up the white Xs late last week. He said that the process will move forward beginning with the tying of red ribbons on trees to start the conversation process.

Palchesko said DTE Vice President Heather Rivard sent a letter to city leaders explaining how the process is supposed to work.

“And in that letter, she did say that it is very much our intention to follow this process as we go forward,” he said.

Palchesko said DTE wants to bring a level of comfort to all residents that the company wants to communicate its intentions with them clearly and make sure that if a tree is to be impacted on a certain piece of property, the homeowner understands why.

Members of the City Commission were particularly upset because the trees were tagged five months after Palchesko spoke before the commission and promised enhanced communications to residents and that the company would cease its Ground-to-Sky tree-trimming program for a more conservative vegetation management program.

Palchesko told the commission in March that the Ground-to-Sky program was being paused and re-evaluated because “some communications probably did not go as well as they should have.”

In March, commissioners were discussing a resolution to urge DTE Energy to cease the program, as city officials were concerned and wanted to take a proactive stance after hearing negative feedback from other communities about heavily trimmed trees with little communication. The resolution would be a proactive measure, as DTE had not yet done any trimming in Royal Oak.

Palchesko told commissioners then that under the new communication plan, DTE would share its plans directly with community leaders before beginning any work in that community.

He also said that in the weeks prior to beginning work, DTE would reach out to customers who own property along the proposed route with a combination of mailings, door hangers and phone calls. Palchesko said DTE would not remove trees on private property outside of easements without the written permission of the property owner.

“We’re going to be making multiple efforts to get in direct contact with the homeowners or the property owners involved,” he said in March.

Palchesko said clear communications would include first marking the tree, sending a letter to the homeowner, following up with a telephone call, and speaking with the homeowner in person if necessary.

“We are going to work with the customer to make sure they understand,” Palchesko said in March.

Commissioners were left feeling as if they were sold a bill of goods.

“He promised enhanced communication,” said Commissioner Jeremy Mahrle.

Whitcomb Avenue resident Andrea Meninch said her tree was marked with the X and she was upset.

“It’s just getting to the point where they need to be stopped,” she said.

Meninch said she doesn’t recall a tree-related power outage on her street.

Palchesko said two-thirds of DTE’s total customer outage minutes are the result of tree-related damage, so the electric provider must manage the impact trees can have on its equipment.

The line-clearing policy was implemented as a result of a directive from the Michigan Public Service Commission to DTE Energy and Consumers Energy to reduce the number of power outages caused by falling trees and branches near power lines.

City Attorney Mark Liss said he was unsure the city could take a stance, as the trees are on the easements and not private property.

“My prior legal research has shown there is not a whole lot — in fact, I think next to nothing — that we can do,” Liss said.