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On Deadline blog: Planning Director: searching for someone who walks on … hot coals?

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Jun 26, 2013

The imminent departure (June 30) of Planning Director Curtis Williams leaves Palo Alto city officials searching for a replacement for the lightning-rod position.

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Comments (5)

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Posted by Joseph Kott
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 27, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Curtis Williams was a well-respected pro's pro as Director of Palo Alto's Planning and Community Environment Department. He had great integrity, as well as first-rate credentials as an urban planner. As Jay points out in this column, Curtis is thoughtful and intelligent too. He was a calm, capable, thoroughly professional leader in a city in which urban planning controversy is often rough-and-tumble.

Aaron Aknin is in the same mold as Curtis. Palo Alto would be fortunate indeed should Aaron wish to apply for the position vacated by Curtis.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 28, 2013 at 7:01 am

Not knowing Mr. Curtis on a personal basis, I can’t comment about his “being a great guy”. Having grown up in large organizations, I can to see people in terms of “the organization”. When they moved on, the question becomes: “is the organization better because so-and-so had held his/her particular job?” So, for me—the question is: “Is the Palo Alto Planning Department (and the services rendered to the community) better off because of Mr. Williams?

Given the general lack of transparency in the Palo Alto government entity, it’s very difficult, generally, to answer these sorts of questions in a meaningful way. We could ask:

1) What were Mr. Williams yearly objectives? Did he meet these objectives in a satisfactory way, or a way that exceeded expectations?
2) Did the services offered the community meet the community’s expectations, or were there problems?
3) If there were problems, were these problems handled in a expeditious, and open, fashion?
4) Did the Planning Department respond in an appropriate fashion to all of its Public Records Requests?
5) Did Mr. Williams review his employees in a timely, and appropriate, fashion?
6) Did Mr. Williams perform internal reviews of his organization, and direct timely reconfigurations to make the Department more responsive to its direct customers, and the community, at large?
7) Were all of the Planning Department projects delivered on-time, and at/under budget?

This is the sort of information that a well-managed organization would be using to determine the effectiveness of a Department-level manager, or above. I don’t believe that Palo Alto is managed (from the top down) like an organization that spends over $1.5B per decade should be managed. I doubt that the kinds of information/data that would be needed to review Mr. Williams as a professional in the private sector is available in the messy, public-sector management schemes of Palo Alto.

In this article Mr. Williams is given credit for revamping the so-called “Development Center”. However, the articles at the time seemed focus on City Manager Keene as the person behind this “improvement”. So—which was it, Williams or Keene? And once the “improvements” were in place, we never were provided basic information about the performance of this department, so as the cost/hour to operate, or the total-time-in-process for permits of similar type. By-and-large, the cost and effectiveness of this department is still as much a mystery to the general public, as before—other than there are now more managers on the payroll and is probably more expensive to operate.

The Charleston/Arastradero lane reductions created much dissatisfaction in South Palo Alto. Requests for information, and data, about traffic volumes and other matters have been ignored. I can attest to that personally—even though Curtis Williams as “cc-ed” when these requests were made to the Transportation engineers. Other of my Public Records Requests about California Avenue have also been ignored.

And then there is the Arrillaga project—conducted in secret, it would seem. One can only wonder what Mr. William’s views are about the public’s right to know what its government is doing?

While the author of this blog may be glowing about Mr. Williams as another of the “good ole boys” that make up Palo Alto’s “inner circle”, I suspect that his tenure in Palo Alto will be seen by the rank-and-file resident differently.

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Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I agree with Wayne Martin. Running the Planning Department has got to be a horrendous job. But recent developments have not cast a good light on Planning: traffic is a disaster all over the city, the CAL Ave. lane narrowing and streetscaping was handled poorly, the Arastradero lane narrowing made Maybell a traffic a nightmare, the Arrillaga project was developed behind closed doors…

Mr. Williams may be “a great guy,” but that's not the critical factor in measuring success.

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Posted by observer II
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Mr. Thorwaldson's blog requires a response from the residents.
There is no "planning" in Palo Alto. There is "development".
Therefore Planning Director is a misnomer- it should be "Development
Director". The City of Palo Alto has become an aesthetic and traffic
mess with destruction of once beautiful neighborhoods from massive
and continuing over-development of office space and gridlock a common sight on our streets.Nobody in the City Hall, the Council or staff, articulates an over-all vision as to where we are going as a community and what values we are trying to protect and promote. The historic role of Palo Alto is already established. The unique balance here between academic/business/residential values is what we needed to protect. We don't need to reestablish our identity with office towers.

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Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
editor emeritus
on Jun 30, 2013 at 10:34 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

The gist of my comments about Curtis Williams was that he was a good listener, calm, intelligent and is considered a fair person even by some usual critics of city government. I also commented that the job is a tough one involving many factors and variables among the spinning plates above the person's head. If I were to list the policy-level "problems" that would face a new director I would list transparency high up, along with reforming (or shelving) the "Planned Community" zone -- which has done much to undermine real community planning with its negotiable "public benefit" provision for higher density or height or parking exceptions to zoning. Policies derive from many levels. Part of the dilemma of planning directors in my experience over the years is sorting out the decisions of planning commissioners, City Council members, top city administrators in a context of Comprehensive Plan policies, and pressure from developers and from citizens and neighborhood groups -- all highly and unashamedly vocal in a highly critical community. Tough job, underscored by the comments above.

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