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Our planning department: whom do they serve?

Original post made by observer, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park, on Aug 14, 2007

Our planning department not only evaluates projects, it collects the fees from project applicants. The result is that planning staff, understandably, often seem to feel that they are working to serve the applicants rather than the needs of the city at large. Because staff analyses and recommendations are often heavily biased in favor of the applicants, the planning commission and city council may make decisions that are not in the best interests of our city.

I don't know how other cities handle planning department funding, but seems to me that the collecting fee function needs to be as separate as possible from the planning function. Otherwise, there is a serious conflict of interest.

Comments (8)

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Posted by sick of it
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 16, 2007 at 7:02 am

What is the point of this blog entry? Instead of trying to start an effort to anonymously trash essential city services, why don't you write a coherent letter to the editor and sign your name?

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Posted by observer
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 16, 2007 at 9:49 am

How does the post "trash city services?" It asks what people think about the current system.

I observed last Monday's Planning Commission meeting in which a developer's project was shepherded by a member of the planning staff and approved by the commissioners, who for the most part overlooked the objections of dozens of neighbors. The commissioners instead congratulated the developer on working so harmoniously with the staff.

The project in question was a single home, so overall the approval will not have a major impact on the city. But this is a pattern that has been repeated for years, as the planning staff bends over to take care of the folks with cash to the detriment of the true (but less visible) clients, the residents. The result: debacles like Derry.

I suppose no one else cares? This isn't an exciting or colorful issue, like the Park Theater or cupcake recipes.

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Posted by Interested
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Aug 16, 2007 at 10:35 am

Count me among those who finds this issue more interesting (and thought-provoking) than cupcake recipes. Problem is, I can't come up with a viable alternative to the system already in place.

Over the years, City Hall -- probably in most cities -- has gone in the direction of being run much more like big business than a service organization. My understanding is that all costs to the planning department to review and process development applications are supposed to be recovered through the fees charged to the developers. As observer points out, that system may have some inherent flaws. But the alternative? The only one I can think of is that the planning department's budget would have to be dramatically increased to cover staff costs, and somehow I don't think that's going to happen in this economic climate.

I'd love to hear other people's ideas on how to address the conflict-of-interest dangers that observer points to.

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Aug 16, 2007 at 3:17 pm

It's good question; who does the Planning Department serve. Here are two paragraphs from another "Town Square" posting asking for a change of direction in Menlo Park. We all seem to be reading from the same song sheet here.

“It seems to me that due to the residual policies of the prior council majority, as well as the recent protracted interim absence of managerial leadership, the Council has not yet been able to fully assume its responsibilities for setting priorities and directions for the city. The long anticipated El Camino plan is a good example.

Since last December, the Administration/staff has not sought, or been receptive to new directions or guidance from the new city council. Thus, older, unpopular policies and practices remain as staff guidelines. The Council is thereupon required to debate and micro-manage staff actions and decisions case-by-case with which it and the residents of the city are continuously dissatisfied. Example: first 1906 El Camino, appealed, back to planning, etc.; now comes 1706 El Camino, followed by 1300 El Camino, then Bohannon Towers, each loaded with zoning exceptions, doomed to be endlessly debated and disagreed over.”

This issue is indeed critical. Staff and administration are employees. They do what they are told; that is, to follow certain policies set down by the Council. This Council has not yet delivered to the Administration those policies that would change the procedures of the staff. Therefore staff still follow the give-away policies of the prior Council majority wherein developers get their way, zoning codes are meant to be excepted, and The General Plan is meant to be ignored. That can only change when the Council provides unambiguous directions to the Administration about how it wants its policies implemented.

Then we can hold the staff’s feet to the fire to assure that their actions respect those policies. With a new city manager, we hope that it is the moment for a new start; new resident-appropriate policies from the Council, and a disciplined staff.

Finally, the Planning Commission is still stocked with former council majority appointees. There are a few good people there now but they need more colleagues.

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Posted by observer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Aug 16, 2007 at 10:04 pm

Thank you, Martin, for weighing in. That is indeed the bigger problem: the inability of the council to get its collective act together. Although the council members are decent and well-meaning individuals, as a group they spend too much time jockeying for position and trying to second guess the political implications of every decision. You just wish they could agree "time to pull up our socks, stop squabbling, and get to work."

But...that is a much bigger issue than this one.

I'm talking about a much more discrete piece of the problem, albeit a piece that has significant consequences. Sure, anyone who has a building plan--be it a homeowner looking to add a spare room or a spec developer seeking approval of a vast proposal that requires pretzelizing the General Plan--should pay a fee to the city. And the planning/building department clearly needs funding. But isn't it possible to separate the collection function separate from the planning/building department?

Staff seems so aware of the fact that it's generating revenue, and therefore seems to feel the need to serve those who provide that revenue. If fees went into the general fund and if the planning budget came out of the general fund, the net result (in terms of the city finances) might be the same, but the staff might not feel so beholden to the developers and might begin to understand that all of us pay their salaries.

I don't know if all other cities handle it the same way Menlo Park does, but want to believe that someone has found a better system.

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Posted by budget wonk
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Aug 17, 2007 at 8:03 am

The planning department is supposed to recover its own expense through fees but does not - by a long shot. If it did, it would be easy to add the staff it sorely needs. Let's hope the current cost allocation study figures this out better. It's a matter of better cost accounting.
The staff spend most of their time with developers, architects, contractors and a lot less time with any other residents or even council members. Seems to me it's only natural to want to serve well those they see most of the time. Council direction and city management can help re-set priorities, at least for a while.

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Posted by long time community member
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 17, 2007 at 9:53 am

It is completey unhelpful to have this kind of discussion in an anonymous forum where no one has the facts. People with issues would do much better to take them up with their elected representatives on the City Council to whom the planning commission reports.

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Posted by observer
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Aug 17, 2007 at 6:03 pm

I do have the facts. I'm looking for ideas. Why is that so threatening? If we can exchange cupcake recipes, can't we discuss ways to help our city run more efficiently and provide better service to residents?

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

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