News

City takes steps to reform 'Palo Alto process'

City plans to add 'individual project managers' next month to shepherd applications through permitting process

Palo Alto officials plan to unveil new pilot projects at the Development Center next month as part of a broad effort to improve customer service and simplify the city's notoriously laborious development process.

The City Council discussed the ambitious effort, known as "Blueprint for a Development Center," at its meeting Monday night. While the city plans to start adding personnel and making other permanent changes in July, Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie told the council that one new Development Center service will begin as soon as next month.

The pilot project would pair applicants with project managers who would shepherd the proposed building or renovation plan through the city's permitting process. Project-management services would give customers a central point of contact, Emslie said, avoiding the "runaround" -- one of the Development Center's often-cited customer-service problems.

Project managers would address concerns at various levels from simple requests for a permit or information to more complex requests for approval of commercial and residential plans.

The city has already tried this approach with several major applicants, including a proposal to expand the Hewlett-Packard Co. headquarters, and received positive feedback.

"I've gone through the process before and after and having a project manager has streamlined the process," said Elinor Kumpf, the architect behind the HP project. "The permit process will run smoothly, and I hope all projects will get this kind of attention."

The city also plans to install a central manager at the Development Center. Currently, different departments at the center report to different heads.

"Rather than force customers to learn our organizational structure, we want to provide a central management where the customer is not required to have to navigate our structure," Emslie said.

The council warmly welcomed staff proposals for the Development Center. Council members Greg Scharff and Nancy Shepherd both said the city's notoriously complex permitting process was a citizen complaint that they heard most often while running for council last year. Mayor Sid Espinosa agreed.

"I'm excited to see where it's going," Espinosa said. "It is assuredly the No. 1 thing I hear complained of it town -- even more so than sidewalks and roads."

Staff is also proposing to set up a Special Revenue Fund for revenues associated with the permitting process. The new fund would allow the Development Center to carry over its balances from one year to the next, independent of the General Fund, and create a reserve for the permitting service.

City officials also plan to change their funding approach and set fees that would cover the "actual cost of providing services," according to a report from Emslie.

"The plan sounds great," Councilmember Greg Schmid said at the conclusion of the presentation. "We want to encourage people to upkeep their homes and make it as efficient as possible."

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Too much traffic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 22, 2011 at 10:38 am

I think the "Palo Alto Process" will be missed by many if it is revamped. Obviously, no one will go on record as actually supporting the long tedious process. But let's not forget that it was a useful tool for those opposed to the supermarket at Alma Plaza and the Hyatt. They were both successfully driven from town thanks to the "process".


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Mar 22, 2011 at 10:47 am

The only way to change the current Palo Alto process will be to starve the beast. The current process requires and feeds on having a lot of staff. Bureaucracies abhor a vacuum and if there are excess staff then there will be excess processes.


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Posted by Wait-And-See
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 22, 2011 at 11:06 am


> While the city plans to start adding personnel

Of course .. can't do anything with existing personnel, can we?

> The pilot project would pair applicants with project managers who
> would shepherd the proposed building or renovation plan through
> the city's permitting process

This is a "no-brainer". The fact that it is only now getting the "nod" demonstrates how incompetent the management of this key City function has been to date.

> The city also plans to install a central manager at
> the Development Center

At what salary? And with what powers? Will this person be given the power to clean up the mess? Or will change continue to be driven by the City Manager?

> Staff is also proposing to set up a Special Revenue Fund for
> revenues associated with the permitting process. The new fund
> would allow the Development Center to carry over its balances
> from one year to the next, independent of the General Fund,
> and create a reserve for the permitting service.

Hmm .. what's going on here? It would seem that the General Fund (meaning salaries and benefits for employees) has been "robbing" the funds required of developers. Without knowing how much money is involved, and how fees are established (revenue neutral vs "for profit"), this change is more murky than not.

> City officials also plan to change their funding approach and
> set fees that would cover the "actual cost of providing
> services," according to a report from Emslie.

So, how have they been set in the past?



Like this comment
Posted by who cares
a resident of Triple El
on Mar 22, 2011 at 11:27 am

Creating more management positions in the Development Center, raising planning and permit fees, and creating yet another city reserve fund (currently city reserve funds account for over over $300,000,000) will streamline the process? With permit fees annually adjusted 12% to !5%, are they telling us that is not enough to cover costs? All these same revelations and even more creative non-cost ideas to streamline the process were suggested 10 years ago to management by Development Center staff when Emslie was the Planning Director, however, he had no forward vision or intention to streamline the process and was quickly promoted "up and out". Current management and hired consultants and contractors running the Development Center now only really care about their bottom line. The process can be blamed for many things, but even more so is that current management ineptitudes within the department and their ability to look forward and create a functional organization are more than likely the reason the system is broke.


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Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Mar 22, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Local government in Palo Alto exists only to expand and perpetuate itself.

This latest plan for the Development Center is just another example.


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 22, 2011 at 5:10 pm

> Staff is also proposing to set up a Special Revenue Fund…

Will this be like the utilities enterprise funds, which transferred about $15M to the general fund last year? When the city needs more money, will it raise fees for permits and then make a transfer to the general fund?

More staff and more managers — doesn’t the city know any other ways to “fix” problems?


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Mar 22, 2011 at 5:15 pm

pat asks"More staff and more managers — doesn’t the city know any other ways to “fix” problems?"

The only way to change the current Palo Alto process will be to starve the beast. More staff, more fees just mean MORE process.


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Posted by EcoMama
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 22, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Unless the City gets rid of existing personnel -- as in, fires them -- I can't see how anything will improve. I've never come across as many people with horrifically bad attitudes as I did during my permit process in that office. They seemed to get joy out of others' misery. With the existing staff, this will be a giant Fail.


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Posted by Anonymousie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 22, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Yes, the "Palo Alto process" is quite the process for sure, with staff not knowing what the left hand vs. the right hand is doing, it seems. One person told us when I went in to make an appointment that we didn't need to make an appointment, so we found out that we wasted our time by a couple of weeks when we did need to make an appointment after all. Paperwork is given out in pieces, when it should have all been given out at one time, therefore wasting more of our time by many weeks that we could have spent addressing the other items we should have been given. We have had so much of our time wasted, and we are still going through the "Palo Alto Process" with our project. Very, very frustrating. I have overheard some negative sounding comments made by staff without even looking at a person's project.


Like this comment
Posted by used to care
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 24, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Now that City leaders have forced many to retire they now have savings to hire all the new managers. Fiscally irresponsible and a wash. It is unfortunate that City staff have been hiring "qualified friends" instead of "experienced, qualified" people to run not only the Development Center but other areas of the City too (Utilities Dept)

This is another nutshell game. Wasn't Q-12 supposed to revamp and fix the problems? The City tried it already under Frank Benest (former City Manager). What ever happened to Q-12? Like always: The city created teams and committees with management staff, then a plan was implemented with consusltants and city management staff, only to get to the nuts and bolts of the organazition (seiu worker bees) to find out that the problem was with top management, lack of knowledge and direction by them as well. Needless to say the Q-12 program did not work. If you don't recognize your problem, you cannot fix it. Q-12 was unsuccessful. Gobs of taxpayer monies (via budgeted funds and city staff wasting time) was spent. With city employee being stripped of a decent wage and benefits, moral at the lowest of all lows, will reform really work or is it just another attempt of the City spending public funds to say "See, we really do want to help. See what we are doing to prove we know what we are doing?"


Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Judging from most visible actions I have seen from this city, the over-development, the garbage and water increases and mis-management we have manager-itis incompetent-us and I am sick of seeing cronies getting big jobs so they can be big shots in Palo Alto and not serving the needs of the public by making really clever and good decisions we can all be proud and happy about. This is just the same elitists in the private sector who move into government to serve their friends.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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