Palo Alto beefs up Development Center staffing

City aims to bring order, simplicity to its famously complex permitting process

Palo Alto officials forged ahead this week with a plan to streamline the city's notoriously complex permitting process when they committed $1.5 million to add staff to the Development Center.

The City Council unanimously agreed Monday (Dec. 5) to spend $1.5 million to add six positions to the city's permitting operation. These include a supervisor to coordinate the various departments involved in the permitting process, a permit-center manager who would provide day-to-day management of the center, a plan examiner and three project coordinators. The expenditure is intended to address persistent community complaints about the long waiting times and the labyrinthine nature of what has become known as the "Palo Alto Process."

The complaints have prompted City Manager James Keene to launch an effort aimed at restructuring the Development Center operation to make it simpler for companies and residents to get their applications processed.

Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie called the approved staff additions "a major step toward creating a management structure that is important to creating the results" that the city committed to providing when it launched the effort in July 2010.

The council unanimously approved the staff proposal to beef up staffing, with Councilwoman Gail Price calling the changes "necessary" and "overdue." The increased staffing would be funded by an increase in permit fees and thus would not require the city to tap into its General Fund.

"Several times over the course of the past decade, there's been a lot of discussion about the need to improve the service and efficiency vis-à-vis the Development Center," Price said. "I believe this proposed budget amendment does that."

Some of the reforms have already been put in effect. The city, for example, has been helping large companies get the needed permits by devoting project managers to help shepherd these applications through the process. Mayor Sid Espinosa said results have so far been encouraging.

"Our business leaders, and I think we'll hear from others, are already responding favorably to it and talking about how it changes the business climate," Espinosa said.

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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Why hasn't the current staff been held accountable for such inefficiency? Why should a department that has failed to serve the public efficiently be rewarded with $1.5M?

They should have put this out to bid. I don't think more government employees is the answer. Also, if our planning dept ever does reach anything approaching reasonable efficiency, it'll be overstaffed with very-hard-to-fire bureaucrats.

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Posted by Mike
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Adding extra capacity (staff) is not the same as improving efficiency. In fact, it may degrade efficiency. Also, they are adding a supervisor and a manager in the total of six extra headcount -- hardly a model of wide span-of-control (or flatness) that is characteristic of effective organizational structure. Have the processes at the Development Center been reviewed/redesigned for better service/cost/effectiveness? That would undoubtedly yield better results than simply throwing more people at the problem (and charging even more exorbitant fees).

Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2011 at 2:15 pm

The Development Center and the Utilities Department are the two worst departments in Palo Alto, competing head-to-head in a race to the bottom. Both these departments are characterized by bloat, inefficiency and deplorable attitudes towards customers. Not to mention outrageous costs to residents.

The City should institute a review process where they solicit feedback from every single customer regarding how they were treated and how their issues were handled and by whom. The departments need to then follow through with corrective measures, disciplinary action, termination, or clarification to the customer as appropriate. That's Management 101.

Like this comment
Posted by Arroyo
a resident of another community
on Dec 9, 2011 at 6:47 am

In my job, I have had the displeasure of having to work with this inept department. They have cost my company thousands of dollars for reports and engineering that was unnecessary and arbritary.

Why did it take "a decade" for Palo Alto to do anything about it?

Some of the current senior managers should be removed from their jobs. The problem has not been the need for more money or number of employees. The problem has been that some of the senior managers in charge of this Department have failed miserably. All the added money will do is provide a bigger "cash cow" for the inept managers to use. It's time to clean house.

Like this comment
Posted by ANN
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 9, 2011 at 1:52 pm

I was dismayed to see that 4 of the five people to be hired are managers/supervisors/coordinators. I think it would be much more efficient to hire people who do the the actual work.

Like this comment
Posted by Arent we short of $
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2011 at 10:59 pm

This appears to be Jim Keene's idea of managing a city. Fire the low level people and hire more highly paid managers who will be beholden to the City Manager.
Isn't he the City Manager who said we were in financial straits? So he hires a bunch of new managers. Any wonder people don't trust government?

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Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Dec 10, 2011 at 12:13 am

In 21st century America, Government exists to perpetuate and expand itself.

View their actions in those terms, then it all makes sense.

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

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