ISSUES IN PLANNING & DEVELOPMENT
Released May 24, 1996
In the autumn of 1995 the Grand Jury received a complaint alleging employee improprieties in the county Planning & Development Department. During the course of the inquiry into this complaint, interviewees brought other problems in this department to the attention of the Grand Jury.
To look into the citizen complaint which led to the investigation of the permit process within the Planning & Development Department.
The Grand Jury interviewed the Director of the Planning & Development Department, several deputies within the department, the General Services Department Property Manager, employees in the Building and Safety Division of the Planning & Development Department, a member of the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission, a member of the Santa Barbara County Board of Architectural Review, a retired building inspector, a supervising grade inspector, a plan checker, a member of the Santa Barbara Contractors Association, a county geologist, a structural/mechanical specialist, and members of the Coyote Road Neighborhood Association.
Also, the Grand Jury visited the Building and Safety Division to learn first-hand about the permit process from the initial permit application to its issuance. At that time, the Grand Jury met with the Director of the Building and Safety Division, the Director of the Zoning Administration Division, and other personnel in the Planning and Development Department.
The building permit process has been addressed by six Grand Jury reports since 1981. Included in these reports were two management audits conducted by an outside auditor on behalf of two Grand Juries.1 Similar observations repeat through these previous reports:
In April 1991 the Director of the Resource Management Department presented to the Board of Supervisors an “Action Plan to Restructure the Land Use Regulatory Program.” This three-part plan was conceived by department employees who were eager to share their ideas for streamlining. The Board of Supervisors endorsed this aggressive streamlining program at that time.2 Also, they monitored progress reports of this program in August 1991, December 1991 and March 1992.3
In November 1991, during this monitoring period, the Board of Supervisors called for a one-stop permit counter process to be initiated for single family homes and ministerial4 (minor) permits.5 At that time the Public Works Department was designated to be the lead agency for setting up the one-stop permit counter for single-family homes and land use permits. Its purpose was to provide information and service concerning land use plans, zoning ordinances, land use and building permit assistance. The Board of Supervisors also monitored progress reports for this one-stop permit counter in December 1991 and January 1992.6 At the same time, the Resource Management Department was trying to simplify its permit process.
A report issued by the 1993-94 Grand Jury again analyzed the permit process and found that progress had been made. In March 1994 the Resource Management Department was merged with the Building and Safety Division of the Public Works Department, and its name was changed to the Planning & Development Department (PDD). (See Exhibit A for the current organization structure of the PDD.)
From 1991 to 1995 through staff reorganization, procedural changes, and delegation of staff decision making, the PDD reduced permit processing time which, in turn, has tempered escalating fees. Permit applications are considered “complete” more quickly and projects go through the process faster. Unnecessary hearings have been scaled down. Time extensions to complete case processing have been reduced. (See Exhibit B for PDD’s summary of streamlining progress from 1991 to 1995.)
THE CURRENT SITUATION
Despite these signs of progress, investigation by the present Grand Jury disclosed that deficiencies still remain. Department management told the Grand Jury that changes in zoning ordinances, improvements in the automation system, additional staff training, and more efficient counter operations are needed. Continuing testimony from interviewees confirmed to the Grand Jury that the streamlining process and one-stop counter operation have yet to realize their goals.
It is important to note that the Board of Supervisors is intent on improving the permit process as demonstrated by their 1991 directives. This continuing to the present with the county’s Strategic Plan adopted in April 1996. In the plan, the Board of Supervisors charge the Director of the PDD “to work with the other permitting/regulatory departments...to develop further recommendations for permit streamlining.”
The Grand Jury observed that the merger of the Building and Safety Division of the Public Works Department with the former Resource Management Department brought together permit functions which have as many differences as similarities. At the one-stop counter operation located on the second floor of the Engineering Building in Santa Barbara, the Building and Safety Division works closely with the Zoning Division of PDD. According to PDD management, 90% of the ministerial permits come under the direction of the Building and Safety Division; 90% of the discretionary7 permits are the purview of the Zoning Administration Division. Neither division director has authority over the other and, while they attempt to coordinate their efforts, neither is in a position to fully manage the overall process and direct system-wide changes necessary to improve effectiveness and efficiency.
In addition, the permit process can involve not only the Building and Safety and Zoning Divisions of the PDD but also other county agencies. Each department representative who is responsible for reviewing permit applications reports to a different manager, i.e. the Fire Department, the Health Department, or the Roads and Flood Control Divisions of the Public Works Department. There is no one central authority responsible for ensuring that all applications move through the multi-agency process smoothly, that duplication of review does not occur, and that system-wide problems are corrected.
Standard Mitigation Conditions of Approval and Standard Mitigation Measures
The Santa Barbara County Planning and Development “Standard Mitigation Conditions of Approval and Standard Mitigation Measures” is a manual that was first published in September 1990 and has been revised eight times. In this manual the first instruction to the PDD Planner is the following:
When a planner implements mitigation measures or writes new ones, these additional interpretations are then translated into project conditions which may be excessive or not feasible compared with the scope of the project. In November 1995 a building official suggested certain reforms of this manual to the PDD Deputy Director. These clarifications referred to changes in the manual sections concerning aesthetics, air quality, energy, flooding, geology, landscape, noise, parking, mobile home parks and conditional use permits.8
Mitigation measures are also a problem when planners deal with Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) that may be needed to comply with state and local standards for the environment. In Santa Barbara County multiple EIRs are sometimes required because of the strong environmental interests in the community. The Grand Jury was told that county planners can allow an applicant to waive an EIR if certain mitigating conditions that the planner imposes are followed. When those conditions are met, the applicant will be given a Negative Declaration (ND), which means that the applicant’s project will have no significant impact on the environment. According to testimony to the Grand Jury, in certain cases some of these newly written mitigation conditions are excessive..
Streamlining and One-Stop Operations
The Grand Jury was told that there is a continuing and critical need to streamline the processes for obtaining land use and building permits. Stated examples of the need for streamlining and clarification include:
The Grand Jury reviewed job descriptions for non-management staff positions and found that many have not been revised since the 1980s. Often, the titles do not correspond with classifications listed on the current PDD organizational charts. PDD management told the Grand Jury that the Personnel Department is consolidating current positions in the Building and Safety and Zoning Administration Divisions of PDD. The current position of “counter technician” will become a combination of “building technician” and “planning technician.” The county Personnel Department intends to develop new job classifications and subsequent job descriptions. This work will not be completed in 1996, according to PDD management.
Also, the Grand Jury learned that certain employees have worked in positions without having passed the required examinations. Qualifications for certain positions are less than adequate. Although not specified in job descriptions, the Grand Jury has been told that plan checkers sometimes function as building inspectors and vice versa. Some building inspectors cross over from their licensed trade to inspect for other trades in which they may not be qualified.
In addition to studying job classifications, the Grand Jury also learned that some non-management workers utilize a 9/80 schedule: nine hours a day with one day off every other week. Many employees who work four-day weeks take Friday off, leaving the department short-staffed. When employees are on vacation, their work loads are not transferred to other persons and the work flow stops during that time.
Employee Evaluation and Training
Department management recognizes that the need for improved job practices for employees include:
Communication with the Public
Kiosks and display areas with informational brochures and documents for the public are located in the first floor PDD reception area and the second floor one-stop counter in the Engineering Building in Santa Barbara. Information also is available in the North County branch offices. The same materials are not stocked in all display areas and some documents are outdated. Many of the holders remain empty, even though they may be specifically titled. The communication material is not consistent. The Grand Jury found that no concerted system of presentation readily guides permit applicants through the PDD process or leads applicants to obtain needed documents or forms.
FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS AND THE PERMIT TRACKING SYSTEM
The PDD is planning to make a major installation of a permit tracking system to automate permit functions early in 1997. With an initial installation cost of $350,000, this computer system will track all aspects of the permit process from application intake through the final building permit clearances. It also will serve as an operations information system for staff and management. This system will replace a number of disparate permit systems that are neither integrated nor complete, and it will provide needed information and tracking data.
When completed, the system will further ensure integration of the building and planning functions. The tracking system is expected to differentiate between the single interaction over the counter and the more complex processes requiring many interactions. It will measure the progress in further reducing the time for issuance of permits.
This system will be networked throughout all branches of PDD, so an applicant could go to any branch office within the county and obtain all essential information during the permit process.
RESOLUTION OF CITIZEN COMPLAINT
The original complaint that a citizen lodged with the Grand Jury focused on one particular staff member of PDD who allegedly misused the authority of the position entrusted to that worker. Complainants described several alleged infractions, including favoritism given to this staff person by department officials. In the course of the investigation into this matter, it was noted that this individual had questionable qualifications for the position of plan checker; this person had risen through the ranks and had not passed qualifying exams. As resolution to the complaint, the PDD fined the staff member who misused authority and also suspended the employee for a week. PDD management took more than one year to resolve this complaint.
FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
FINDING 1: The Board of Supervisors first directed the PDD to implement a streamlining program for permit processing and one-stop permit counter in 1991. In their 1996 Strategic Plan, the Supervisors are still requesting improvement in the permit streamlining process.
RECOMMENDATION 1b: The Board of Supervisors should continue to request progress reports from PDD quarterly.
RECOMMENDATION 1c: The 1996-97 Grand Jury should monitor the progress of PDD in implementing the Supervisors’ directives.
RECOMMENDATION 3: PDD management should review employees practices to make appropriate adjustments to enforce established regulations.
FINDING 4: There is no single manager in PDD who is totally responsible for all permit functions.
RECOMMENDATION 7b: Planners should consult with, and obtain approval from management before creating their own mitigation measures.
RECOMMENDATION 7c: PDD should consider the November 1995 recommendations of the building official to modify the mitigation measures.