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Council Backs Call for Planning Department Audit

By Oliver Lukacs
Staff Writer

Dec. 18 -- Noting that it was an overdue system tune-up and not a bureaucratic witch-hunt, the City Council Tuesday night unanimously supported a “performance audit” of the Planning Department.

Expanded to include the permit and code enforcement processes, as well the City’s “fairly daunting” zoning code, the audit could begin as early as next year, according to City Manager Susan McCarthy.

McCarthy said the City “has the funding” for the audit, but wanted to expand the scope of the original request launched by former Planning Commissioner Kelly Olsen, which she called “too limited.”

Council members expressed regret at the “painful genesis” of the audit, but pointed out the silver lining.

The audit, said Council member Pam O’Connor, “came from unfounded accusations at our planning department, our staff.

"It is really sad that this kind of destructive behavior really leads to a lack of confidence in an organization, and while no organization is perfect," she said, "our staff is always professional and have high standards.”

However, O'Connor added, there is a “good side” to the audit.

“I wouldn’t call it a performance audit, it’s more of systems approach," she said. "Maybe we need to keep an eye out for a general overhaul sometime, and guess what, a few years from now we’ll probably have to do it again. It’s an ongoing process.”

While it was “a painful genesis,” Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown agreed that “it’s a sincere request to make the system better for all who have to live through it.”

McKeown hoped the audit would result in a “user-friendly City process” by aiming “for absolute fairness, and fairness in this sense is not an absence of favoritism, but a presence of consistency.”

Consistency and equality does not, however, mean treating everyone the same, McKeown added.

“We have a bifurcated situation with a single process and we treat homeowners sometimes like major commercial developers, and yes we need to treat everyone equally," McKeown said. "But we need to recognize that the average homeowner adding a bedroom doesn’t have the same level of expertise as someone who is building a 30,000 square foot development.”

Councilman Ken Genser hoped that by the end of the audit the City will have reached a level of transparency.

“If people who have just a question, who just want a clear answer, I hope we have that where a person can stand at a counter or by email get an answer in a reasonable amount of time” or just “get a response,” period.

In other actions Tuesday night the City Council:

  • Authorized a contract for demolition of the former Police building at City Hall.
  • Directed staff to proceed with the next steps for the redevelopment and adaptive reuse of 415 Pacific Coast Highway, the famous home of William Randolph Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies.
  • Enrolled themselves in the Public Employee Retirement System.
  • Tabled election reform action recommended by the Living Wage Commission, after the City Attorney requested more time to absorb the commission’s suggestions.
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