A worthy gamble by Palo Alto city manager | September 9, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 9, 2011

A worthy gamble by Palo Alto city manager

Reorganization and staffing increases in building permit process will test manager's ability to achieve needed culture-shift where others have failed

For many Palo Alto residents, the quality of city government comes down to how they and their architects and contractors are treated when trying to navigate the city's building permit labyrinth.

Horror stories abound of how even minor projects can become mired in the city's review process, frustrating homeowners, developers and their design professionals and driving up the cost and duration of construction.

The combination of an overworked city staff along with an archaic process for review and approval by city departments like fire, planning, public works and utilities result in a system that is inefficient and on the verge of collapse.

It didn't take City Manager Jim Keene long to recognize the importance of overhauling the permitting process to improve the functioning and credibility of Palo Alto city government, and he sought help from community members and design professionals to craft a fix.

With the added pressure of a rapidly growing demand for building permits and project approvals, the city council approved Keene's bold plan this week that will add five highly paid staff members to the Development Center at a time when other departments are cutting back.

The reforms passed easily 7-1, perhaps due to the booming business currently seen at the center, which could produce $8 million in revenue by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. If the city manager's plans work out, the five new staff members will lead the rejuvenated department to drastically change the "culture" of a department that has long been known as the home of "Palo Alto Process," a label that brings visions of red tape and gridlock to the residents, builders and developers who attempt to get approval for projects large and small.

It won't be easy to wipe out the mindset that Development Center staff members often are fixated on mind-numbing details rather than actually helping customers get something done. But at least on paper, city administrators have designed a system we hope will deploy a much more skilled team, which is one of the busiest at City Hall.

Former Councilman John Barton, a local architect who has years of experience in dealing with the center and served on an advisory group that helped the staff draw up the changes, emphasized the importance of achieving a culture change within City Hall.

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

The final vote to endorse the changes was 7-1, with Yiaway Yeh absent and Karen Holman dissenting. It was a solid victory for the city manager, who has spent more than a year putting the new guidelines together.

The beefed-up department will be led by a director who will report directly to the city manager and coordinate interactions with other city departments involved in the permitting process. Other new staff will oversee the day-to-day operations of the Development Center and improve customer service, from initial discussions with a resident, developer, architect or contractor to complex project review and management.

The proposal estimates that the new employees, plus an administrative staff member that already has been added to the department, would cost an additional $600,000 to $800,000 a year, pushing anticipated expenses for the year ending July 2012 up to $7.5 million. But the administration expects those costs to be covered by the department's growing revenue base, which is expected to hit $7.5 million to $8 million for the fiscal year.

There is plenty of reason for the city to take this action now, despite the economic downturn that is crippling the national economy. Council member Nancy Shepherd called gridlock at the Development Center "the most egregious in our community right now."

Staff data shows that this May, 1,263 customers were served, up 380 visits from last year, a 43 percent increase. During June, there was a 31 percent jump over last year, although July moved up only 2 percent over 2010.

Mayor Sid Espinosa got it right when he told the council: "Without a doubt, Palo Alto should be thorough, we should be transparent, we should be rules-based, but we should also be more customer service-based and more efficient."

We wholeheartedly agree, and hope the city can achieve that outcome with this overhaul of the Development Center.


Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 9, 2011 at 6:26 am

Ms Holman should explain her vote. Why dosen't the Weekly find out why she is against this change. There is clearly a problem and the city is trying to address it. COme on--Weekly, for too long you have let our local "leaders" slide by not following up with hard hitting news stories. There have been plenty of examples of our "leaders" screwing up (HSR vote, PACT, California avenue trees, budget deficit) and the Weekly has done no investigative reporting whatsoever.

Posted by Regular Reader, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2011 at 7:01 am

The Weekly did report on why Holman voted against the proposal in its original article Web Link:

"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."

Before you are so quick to criticize, perhaps read a bit more carefully? The Weekly is by far the most reliable coverage we get. Can it be better? Of course. But to say they do no investigative reporting is silly. To take just one example I'm most familiar with, their coverage of the Children's Theater fiasco was spot on and made a big impact.

Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 9, 2011 at 7:29 am

Regular reader--you are correct. I missed that part.

I see it also states:
"They don't, however, take into account the concerns of the greater community, which may differ from those of the applicant, she said."

That is a problem. And that is what is wrong with the Palo Alto process and what is wrong with council members like Holman. The"concerns" of the "greater community" are too enough put ahead of the rights of the property owner, even when they are following the rules to the letter. We have seen many (too many) examples of this. Holman has long been a proponent of usurping private property rights for her vision of the "greater good"--remember her role in the historic land grab ordinance, which was handily defeated by the voters. People like Holman need to learn that they cannot exercise absolute control over property they do not own--be it for their misguided vision of what the greater community wants.

I will take issue with their investigative reporting. Their work on the PACT scandal was way off the mark.. They let the issue of conflict of interest from two sitting councilmembers (Klein and Morton) slide and they sugar coated Briggs' acts of malfeasance--probably so as not to upset the very very vocal local contingent that has ensured that the PACT continues to receive $1+ million per year, even as our streets go unrepaired (it is a local treasure they say).
Sorry, the Weekly can and should do better--less focus on advertising and more on journalism.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

I agree 100% with svetoid.

Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 11, 2011 at 1:00 pm

svatoid is a registered user.

you see, Walter, we can occasionally agree on something

Posted by Do need transparency, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 12, 2011 at 11:29 am

The way to find out why a vote went the way it did is to listen to the tape of the meeting, not just to throw hostility into the town square forum.
The Media Center does a great job of posting the videos and the video is divided into agenda items so you can find the parts you are interested in.
How about less venom, more facts.
Greater transparency in city actions is desperately needed on many fronts.

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