Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Interim Community Development Director Rory Walsh, Councilman David Lim, Mayor Robert Ross and Interim City Manager Larry Patterson discuss a recently released audit report of the city of San Mateo's Community Development Department.
San Mateo’s self-imposed audit of its Community Development Department culminated with the release of a report that revealed struggles with a thinly stretched staff, poor communication and uneven service for those looking to conduct business with the city.
The City Council will review the 265-page report prepared by Zucker Systems to assess implementation tactics during a study session Feb. 18.
Some of the 224 recommendations the council will consider include overall departmental structural changes, establishing measurable performance standards, integrating new technologies, implementing changes to the building and planning divisions, recruiting staff for vacant and new positions and remodeling the front counter to be more hospitable to the public.
“These recommendations provide a road map for making improvements to the Community Development Department that will improve customer service, lead to better communication with the community and enhance collaboration between departments,” Mayor Robert Ross said in a press release.
After a breakdown in staff and council communication that landed the city entangled in a lawsuit over the opening of a 7-Eleven in a residential neighborhood, officials opted to undergo an independent management audit of the department in September. Community Development includes planning, code enforcement, building and neighborhood improvement and housing divisions.
The recession brought a lack of business to the department and the city having to tighten its belt by cutting 17 staff positions, said Councilman David Lim.
“I’ve expressed some buyer’s remorse in cutting positions during the recession,” Lim said. “The council needs to take some responsibility that we perhaps asked staff to do more with less.”
The fact that the department is becoming swamped again is a good sign, Lim said. But continuing with a bare-to-the-bone staff while the market began to pick up is what led to the city’s trouble, Lim said.
The Zucker Systems $45,000 audit involved in-depth interviews with staff, customer focus groups and surveys of members of the public who are currently in the permitting application process. Having an external organization solicit staff on condition of anonymity gave way to frank, unfiltered and accurate assessments, Councilman David Lim said.
“You don’t come up with that many recommendations without digging deep. … It’s a genuine reflection of the organization,” Lim said.
The report prioritizes the recommendations and at the top of the list is hiring appropriate staff to fill vacant or only temporarily filed positions. Of immediate importance is the need to hire a permanent Community Development director to oversee the implementation of the Zucker suggestions, Ross said.
Making sure information is not lost by the wayside and is accurately communicated to each staff member throughout the application process is critical, said Interim Community Development Director Rory Walsh. The city began a $1 million initiative to implement a software program known as EnerGov System that will allow staff to track each application electronically, Walsh said.
Integrating this risk reduction software is a critical piece to ensuring the department eases its application processes and upholds the city’s commitment to its customers, Ross said.
Current community development applications will not be hindered by the bolstering of the department, said Interim City Manager Larry Patterson.
“If anything, it could have a positive impact on current projects,” Patterson said.
After thoroughly reviewing the report, the council will determine which recommendations will be implemented — and in what order, Patterson said.
“We’re anxious to move forward with the implementation of the recommendations,” Patterson said.
San Mateo can expect to see a permanent city manager and Community Development director sometime in March or April. The city wants to move through the process as quickly as possible and hopes to have applied the first round of prioritized recommendations in nine months and the remainder within two to three years, Patterson said.
“The recommendations are consistent with our core principles and allow the city to look to the future throughout the implementation process,” Patterson said. “We are committed to serving the San Mateo community and seeking constant improvement throughout the organization.”
For a full copy of the Community Development Department Management Audit visit the city’s website at www.cityofsanmateo.org/ index.aspx?NID=2706.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106