Palo Alto aims to slash waiting time for permits

City Council agrees to hire five new people for Development Center to boost customer service

Palo Alto's famously infuriating permit-review process is about to get a major makeover.

Spurred by years of customer complaints of having to wait hours to get help and by a recent surge of activity at the city's Development Center, the City Council decided Tuesday to add five new staff members, including a new director, to the chronically busy permit hub.

The council voted 7-1, with Yiaway Yeh absent and Karen Holman dissenting, to back a long list of reforms proposed by City Manager James Keene and the city's planning staff to improve customer service and reduce waiting times at the center, located across the street from City Hall. The reforms include hiring a "development center official" to coordinate the various departments involved in the permit process (a list that includes Planning, Fire, Utilities and Public Works), a "permit center manager" to provide day-to-day management of the facility and three project managers.

In approving the proposed initiatives, the council sought to address one of the most common sources of community consternation -- a permit process residents, developers and builders have called unnecessarily confusing and torturously time-consuming.

Councilman Greg Scharff said the process (derisively known around town as the "Palo Alto Process") is "probably the No. 1 issue people complained about" when he ran for the City Council last year. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd called the problem "the most egregious in our community right now."

The frustration only increased over the past year and a half, as the number of construction projects and permit inquiries increased. According to staff data, the Development Center saw 1,263 customers walk-ins in May of this year, 380 more than in May 2010 (a 43 percent increase). The June numbers spiked by 31 percent from a year ago, while July saw a 2 percent bump from a year ago.

Over the past seven months, the number of walk-ins per month increased by an average of 15 percent when compared to a year ago, Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie said in a report.

"The Development Center has experienced considerably increased customer traffic in the last 18 to 24 months," Emslie told the council Tuesday. "Real estate activity and construction activity requiring building permits have increased dramatically."

More activity means longer waits for permit seekers. Emslie and Planning and Community Environment Director Curtis Williams said it's not uncommon for visitors to the Development Center to wait between one and three hours to get help. Local architect Judith Wasserman, who sits on the city's Architectural Review Board, cited one person she knows who had to wait four hours to pick up a permit that was allegedly ready. Another person, she said, visited the Development Center before lunch and had to stay there until closing time to get the desired assistance.

"The Palo Alto Process has become a synonym for overweening bureaucracy, micromanagement and frustrating inconsistencies," Wasserman said. "I think it's time for a change."

Former Councilman John Barton, an architect who served on an advisory group that helped staff come up with reforms, urged the council to approve the proposed changes and to pursue a broader "culture change" in the Development Center. Barton and Emslie said hiring a high-level manager to oversee the entire process is particularly critical. Barton compared the city's existing Development Center to "a pyramid with the top cut off." The poor collaboration between departments means applicants are occasionally hit with different requirements from different parts of City Hall. In some cases, they are forced to spend many months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the required permits.

Barton also warned that meaningful change would take time and considerable effort from the city.

"The plan is one thing -- implementing it is another," Barton said. "As you know, culture changes are difficult. If this is anything, it's a culture change."

Holman was the only council member to oppose the staff proposals, arguing that they don't go far enough in ensuring transparency. The reforms, she said, are geared primarily toward helping applicants achieve their goals more efficiently. They don't, however, take into account the concerns of the greater community, which may differ from those of the applicant, she said.

The rest of the council, however, enthusiastically endorsed the staff proposal.

"Without a doubt, Palo Alto should be thorough, we should be transparent, we should be rules-based," Mayor Sid Espinosa said. "But we should also be more customer-service based and more efficient."

The funds for the new positions will come from Development Center revenues, which have been spiking thanks to the higher activity. In fiscal year 2011, which ended June 30, the city collected $7.1 million in Development Center revenues while spending $5.8 million. Staff expects the center, which is supposed to be revenue neutral, to bring in between $7 million and $8 million in revenues in the current fiscal year.

Barton said the staffing additions, by speeding up the permitting process, would help offset the rising expenditures. More people would want to come to Palo Alto, contributing more permit fees to the city.

"The potential for cost recovery is very, very, very high," Barton said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 7, 2011 at 12:13 am

This is BS. That 1MM should be given back to the tax payers it was extorted from. Now we have a bunch of new "employees" to pay with our tax dollars. The process will not be improved and we'll foot the bill for more BS public jobs. To speed up permits we add more employees to the process? Seems the current employees are the problem. Adding more will mean even longer permit timeframes. This is truly taxation without representation, this matter should be voted on by the public.

Like this comment
Posted by Lupe
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 7, 2011 at 1:58 am

Just Great. More public sector bureaucracy for us and our children to pay for.

Like this comment
Posted by Too much traffic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2011 at 7:54 am

Any idea why Holman dissented? Does she like the Palo Alto process as is? Or is she concerned that things may move quickly in the city, for a change?

Like this comment
Posted by Outsource-It
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2011 at 9:00 am

> Barton also warned that meaningful change would take time and
> considerable effort from the city.

And why would that be? How many people have to wait hours at any of the retail stores at the Stanford Shopping Center? What's different about the "culture" of the private sector to satisfy its customers and keep them happy from that of the public sector, that doesn't seem to care whether the customers are happy, much less even served in a reasonably amount of time? Wonder what would happen if this whole operation were outsourced to the private sector? Wonder how long the "culture" would take to change then?

Barton is such a shill for labor unions and their low level of corruption, that nothing he has to say should be taken seriously.

Like this comment
Posted by JustMe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 7, 2011 at 9:10 am

Unfortunately, I worry that this is not the correct solution to the problem. Rather than hire more people, they should fire the obstructionist bottlenecks that have created the problem. If they then want to hire people willing to do the job properly, that's fine, but a house-cleaning is needed as a priority task.

Like this comment
Posted by Too much traffic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2011 at 9:13 am

"And why would that be? How many people have to wait hours at any of the retail stores at the Stanford Shopping Center? "
That is the "Palo Alto Way".. Meaningful change is bad. Things need to be done the way they were 50 years ago. Everything needs to be filtered through the "too much Traffic" prism or the "green" prism or the "the way it was 50 years ago/change is evil" prism.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry has to have their say--their rights trump the rights of property owners and businesses. God forbid something is resolved quickly--someone may get upset and we cannot have that.
That is the Palo Alto way.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 7, 2011 at 9:38 am

This is ridiculous. More levels of bureaucracy with staff!! Remember when Frank Benest hired more and more people for his office - and then Keene did and on and on? Did things get better? NO. And the city comes to a standstill every other Friday. Time to house clean at City Hall - make it lean. Eight hours work for eight hours pay. Cut out the bureaucracy, the redundancy, the endless pieces of mail from the Utility Department. And as for the Council, we get what uninformed voters vote for.
This bunch can't say NO very often.

Like this comment
Posted by Sandy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 7, 2011 at 10:16 am

It is time for Palo Alto to think before they leap or are they capable of doing that. One thing that was not mentioned in the article, but was mentioned on KTVU news this morning was that the new employees are ALL making 6 figures. How can a city who says they are in debt justify that? The city has raised our garbage rates, water rates, taxes, etc. When is the city who supposedly is representing us start doing their job. The city is also talking about cutting back on our firemen and police officers, but can justify five new employees making 6 figures. I agree with the numerous comments that they should do a clean up in the planning department before hiring new employees. Again money wasted.

Like this comment
Posted by JustMe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 7, 2011 at 10:30 am

Remember the police investigation of the PA Children's Theatre that totally re-orged the theatre, wrecked lives, and ultilately found no wrong-doing? I have a sneaking suspicion that a similar investigation of the permit process, the people running it, their methods and motivations, would be far more fruitful.

Like this comment
Posted by Slash = /////
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 7, 2011 at 10:37 am

Remind me how many times have we slashed this before.
We slash it again and again. We don't seem to have control of the situation.

/ * 1000000

Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2011 at 10:41 am

During my last visit to the Development Center, I met with a planner, we'll call him HR. HR did not bother to enter the permit correctly into the system. So I could not use the phone-in system to access my info. He did not respond to emails or phone calls. I finally had to get someone else to virtually hold his hand to do his job. As a result of his incompetence, our contractor had to re-schedule his subs -- twice. The property could not be occupied on the intended date and I had to go through the nerve-wracking frustration of not knowing when his highness would do his job.

To think that we're going to be paying the pension of this slothful individual for decades simply turns my stomach.

And then the smug, self-satisfied bureaucrats in City Hall are aghast at the rancor they experience from the public when they ask for more taxes.

It's pretty simple: If you don't serve your customer, you should go out of business.

Like this comment
Posted by @ Sandy
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 7, 2011 at 10:48 am

They have to pay city employees 6 figures or they can't live near the city! I recall talking to a garbage man years ago and he was getting 6 figures too! no wonder the price of EVERYTHING around here is ludicrous.

Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 7, 2011 at 10:57 am

Boy, what a bunch of angry people! Give the money back to the taxpayers and don't issue permits at all - Oh, except that state law requires that every jurisdiction issue permits.

This reorganization project is NOT aimed at the planning process (Karen Holman take note), it is aimed more at the smaller jobs - kitchen remodels, house additions, small commercial projects, etc. It's like having an express lane in the grocery store - if I just need to pick up a permit, why should I wait behind someone who is building a 3 story commercial building?

BTW - I wouldn't believe everything KTVU said. Employees' salaries are in the public record. Look it up.

Like this comment
Posted by Midtown construction mom
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2011 at 11:01 am

I think those city workers/administration have no idea what a real job is like. Each employee has a job description that is so specific that there is no cross over whatsoever and work is done so unproductively. Something that would take a real business to do in one day could take weeks to plan because there needs to be a separate person for everthing. More people hired? That won't do a thing until they change their policies...

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 7, 2011 at 11:17 am

What they really need to do is cut all of the red tape- go through the list of requirments and cut the list in half. Also go through the list of projects now requiring permits and cut that list by 25%.

Like this comment
Posted by Ronna Devincenzi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2011 at 11:22 am

I went to the meeting last night, and was impressed when Mayor Espinosa told of having gone to visit two companies with Jim Keene during the past year. He said they were told their experience was night and day and it was much easier for the companies to work with the city now.

First, I was impressed the mayor and the city manager have been visiting people to "meet and greet", showing interest in their concerns; that's refreshing. Secondly, evidence shows a remarkable difference based on real experience. So there's hope!

The two speakers last night - John Barton and Judith Wasserman - are credible, professional, and experienced in working with this department and its processes, and in Judith's case, from mid 1980. I take issue with the snide comment made about former Councilman Barton by the anonymous "Outsource it". It is untrue & uncalled for.

While I agree 100% with the comments made by David Pepperdine, a few posts above, because what he describes has been my experience too, in Planning and Public Works, the past does *not* have to equal the future in the city. The mindset CAN change, given leadership is behind it.

I commend Jim Keene for trying to remedy what is a known problem. For the past year, he has done more than just give it lip service. I think he is doing a good job of attacking the problem, head-on, and for the benefit of everyone: community AND staff.

Staff can't help but be made more healthy as a result of efficiency, accountablity, transparency, leadership... and a method for getting support from higher-ups, should any of those links fail. (If more of this thinking is implemented, there'd be no need for an anonymous tip line for city staff to report in-house irregularities.)

A few years ago, I remember reading a denial of "The Palo Alto Process" in the newspapers, where developers called it a "myth".

At least now, all concerned are admitting it is a problem, putting their resources together to find a remedy for it. I applaud the city and the council. Now they just need to get ALL the upper managers on board too - more like Curtis Williams, a competent man.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2011 at 11:28 am

The one thing that has not been mentioned is that as a result of the PA process for permits and inspections, there are many remodels (particularly those on a smaller scale - replacing windows, kitchens, bathrooms, etc.) that are being done without permits just to accomplish the remodel within a sensible period of time. Now is the time people want to remodel expecting to be done by the holidays.

The longer the procedure, the more work will be done without permits!

Like this comment
Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 7, 2011 at 11:36 am

This change was long overdue!
Now they need to look at the Development Center's antiquated "no cell phone" policy posted on hostile signs all over the waiting area. It is painful enough to have to sit and wait, it is ridiculous in the middle of SIlicon Valley to have a cell phone ban.

Like this comment
Posted by notsofast
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 7, 2011 at 11:43 am

There was never a ban on cell phones,but I feel it is annoying that in the middle of conversation with them,there is a phone ringing from a different desk where another customer sits and sometimes he talks so loud that everyone in the room can hear.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

A very good garbage collector might be worth 6 figures - as for the rest I doubt it.

Like this comment
Posted by Christine Czarnecki
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2011 at 2:50 pm

I have just been through the building process with a bathroom remodel in our home. As I did this as owner/builder, I saw the process first hand.

I found everyone I dealt with - receptionist, planners and inspectors - to be unfailingly polite and helpful, and wonderfully patient with my questions and informative in their answers.

I am grateful for the stringient requirements for building in Palo Alto. Everything extra that is required by the code makes a better, safer and more durable house than one built to other cities' lesser building standards. My husband and I have built two homes elsewhere, and I know this to be the case in our experience.

The planners and inspectors in the Development Office do not have a moment to spare. I watched this while I waited my turn. The inspectors are available by phone starting at 7:30am, and I had inspectors come to my house as late as 6:00pm during the process. That does not sound like a cushy job to me.

I am pleased that they will have some additional help, as I saw for myself the amount of work they have to do in that department.

Like this comment
Posted by porter
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Also, don't forget, there are contractors and companies that refuse to do construction business in Palo Alto once they find out the job will be in Palo Alto due to the famous "Palo Alto process". It's not worth it to them to go through the hassles. Just where does that leave us?

Like this comment
Posted by JustMe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm

I have heard that the level of difficulty in dealing with the permit process often changes depending on if the applicant is the homeowner or a contractor. However, I have one neighbor who spent months trying to get final approval to finish a remodel of her front door because the person she had to deal with was a part-timer who insisted that the job be finished wood rather than painted. She held the process hostage and turned it into a nightmare. And it was the homeowner that was trying to deal with her.

Like this comment
Posted by Don't ask questions
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 7, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Maybe Holman would want to ask:

Why would the City hire another "Building Official" manager when the work load is not and apparently cannot be addressed by the (unqualified) City Building Official earning 6 figures that is there already?

Wouldn't it have saved money to replace him?

He has been responsible for the performance of the Development Center for the past few years?

A work load issue is not addressed by hiring more on the top.

Like this comment
Posted by Empire building
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Don't ask: your question should be directed at the City Manager. Individual councilmembers do not direct city workers.
Jim Keene is building a nice little empire for himself and his development happy office. And he is preparing for the big construction boom they are planning. They have hired expensive consultants to come up with a development plan along El Camino. Doesn't matter that the city can't cope with the population it has now.
Wasserman and Barton are self described housing advocates. That means more crowding more traffic and.... more money for architects Barton and Wasserman.

Like this comment
Posted by Outsource-It
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2011 at 7:56 am

> Comments about John Barton are unwarranted.

John Barton sat on the City Council for four years. During that time, he, as a practicing architect, and a person closely associated with that �crowd� never made an issue of the �problems� of the Planning Department, even though they have surfaced quite frequently.

Mr. Barton could have talked to other Council members, generating a so-called �Colleagues Memo� that could have brought this matter to a head much sooner. He did not.

Mr. Barton could have encouraged the City Auditor to review the planning process in detail, with an eye to revamping the service delivery model so that it better favored the customers. He did not.

Mr. Barton could have used the experiences of any of his clients that proved that problems existed in this so-called �Planning Process�, to fully document the issues which statements, and schedules�demonstrating delays that could be attributed to the City. He did not.

So, it becomes difficult to understand why John Barton�s views are of much value here, particularly when he is claiming that �it will take a long time to change this culture�.

We, who live and work in the private sector of the Silicon Valley, recognize that time is money, and that successful organizations/companies seize every opportunity to reduce the cost of their goods/services to their customers. Failure to do so results in unhappy customers, and more-often-than-not�lost customers. Municipal governments seem to have missed this message, and too often seem to believe that they need not provide timely, cost-effective services. Governments, too often, see themselves as �gatekeepers�, not �facilitators�, when government oversight is concerned. To that end, it is not hard to claim that �government has lost its way�. People like John Barton [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff] have done little to help �government� recognize its problems, and take timely corrective action.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 8, 2011 at 8:31 am

JustMe - as a homeowner who had done a lot of renovations, I found that the Planning Dept is much more helpful to homeowners than contractors. My only big complaints are speed (lack of) and the inconsistency in the rules from department to department (and often inspector to inspector, planner to planner). The usual biggest hold up is getting the gas turned back on with a new meter - somehow that is always the land of lost paperwork and "we'll get it done in 4-6 weeks" - that doesn't work when you are ready to move back in and everything else is done!

Like this comment
Posted by Justme
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 8, 2011 at 9:23 am

Thank you for that story palo alto mom. I have to believe that "lost paperwork" is a standard tactic employed to postpone action. I have seen insurance companies ask for paperwork signed by the doctors involved, and when it is submitted, it is lost, re-submitted, and lost again, several times over. In the meantime, the insyrance company does not have to pay the claim because the paperwork is "lost", which is a win for them. I believe you may have been experiencing the same tactic applied, and it would be interesting to know the reasons.

I do not accept that the paperwork is really lost. These guys live and breath paperwork, how can the be so unorganized that they lose it so often? A couple of losses could be explained by stupidity, but I question if stupidity on that level is survivable to adulthood. I fear other motivations are at work.

Speaking of work, is it possible that these guys are purposely MAKING work for themselves so that they can claim overwork? Could an effective streamlining of the system be achieved by selectivly terminating the purposely non-performing and counter-productive employees rather than adding more?

Like this comment
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 8, 2011 at 10:56 am

This is exactly the thinking that has the city in the budget situation it's in right now. The department took in $7.1M and had $5.8 in expenses. It "is supposed" to be revenue neutral. So, they increase costs? We're not talking about a one-time purchase of a new copier, we're talking about employees that will be collecting a salary and pension and benefits for 30+ years. So, if revenues dry up, will they immediately fire people to stay "neutral"? Nope, they'll raise fees.

Why not transfer the money to the general fund and pay for some infrastructure projects. I remember voting for an increase in fees several years back to fund storm drains, and a year later they were out of money and failed to complete over half of the projects they promised. Have yet to see any mention of fixing that boondoggle.

Like this comment
Posted by Past Experience
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 8, 2011 at 11:07 am

As an example of inefficiency, I will share our experience.

We live on a pie shaped lot at the end of a cul de sac. We share fences with at least five neighbors on four different streets. We wanted to extend our home but every different planner we spoke to had a different idea which was our "back fence". One of our fences runs close to our home at one corner and we felt that this fence was a side fence, not a back fence. According to different interpretations of the law, each of 3 fences could be called our back fence and 2 of these were nowhere near the house. Of course, in the end, the definition of back fence was the one that was nearest the house and we were not allowed to extend within 15' of that fence even though the house was already within 15' of that fence.

Looking at maps and even the house footprint at the planning office gave no true idea of the situation. It seems that our house does not exist on the footprint the city has on records.

Although we had to get inspectors out at many stages of our remodel, we could never get anyone out from the office to look and see how our house actually sat on the lot and what we hoped to do. All they could do was look at diagrams and blueprints and discuss with us at the office for much longer than it would have taken for someone to come down and actually look at our house and our lot.

This problem was the first in a very long series of hiccups to our remodel. If we ever need to do anything again, the house footprint is still different in city records to the actual position of our house, and will probably cause any future plans to have exactly the same problems.

Like this comment
Posted by Charlie
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 8, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Just last year, the city almost ran out of money and can't afford to pay the safety guards for the school kids. And now they decide to add a million dollar in the expense. Without a doubt, they are going to make it all back from the home owner IMHO.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 9, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Great. Lets see, the city overcharged the builders and citizens for permits and inspections and now that there is residual money remaining they find a way to spend it. how about giving it back to the people you stole it from. If I over paid for my remodel permits and fees then why don't I get my money back?

From a different perspective, the city buidling department has never run smoothly and now they are just thowing money at the "problem". These positions were just eliminated during the budget cuts and now they come back in with our over taxed system.

Does anyone remember Steve Emslie was brought in years ago as the person who was going to fix the building/planning department. He made things worse, his departemnts failed audits and he in turn gets promoted. Now our "extra" money is going to correct the mess.

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

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