San Mateo is moving forward with revamping its Community Development Department to regain public trust after a self-imposed management audit revealed an overworked staff and poor communication.
City officials and members of the public gathered Monday to review and discuss suggestions to recruit new staff, remodel some parts of City Hall to make the department more accessible and convenient to the public and incorporate new staff, integrate new technology, conduct training and hire an ombudsman who would help the public should any issues arise.
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.
“I want residents of San Mateo to understand this was in no way an indictment or vote of no confidence of our CDD staff. I think we have some of the hardest workers … [but] there were a number of very public, and quite frankly, missteps that the entire city had to bear,” Councilman David Lim said. “Any responsibility for any missteps is with this council and what we’re trying to do now is fix any of the missteps we made.”
The 265-page audit prepared by Zucker Systems outlines 224 suggestions that Interim Community Development Director Rory Walsh said the department is already integrating. With most of the recommendations approved, it’s now a matter of developing an implementation timeline, Interim City Manager Larry Patterson said.
The council cut 17 staff during the recession and it agrees rehiring qualified staff is a top priority.
Seven new positions were approved in October and Walsh said she would like the department to have another four in the building and three in the planning departments as well as a new code enforcement manager. The city should expect to spend about $300,000 in one-time funding and another $800,000 in ongoing salary and benefits, Walsh said.
The council approved but wants to wait to fill positions that would report directly to the departmental director until it hires a permanent one. Walsh was hired temporarily after former CDD director Lisa Grote stepped down late last year.
Making room for more staff and easing the public’s visits to the department is motivating an estimated $750,000 City Hall remodel. Recommendations include constructing a more customer friendly counter as well as trying to stretch out cubicle and office space, Patterson said.
The city has purchased and is implementing EnerGov, a planning, permitting and licensing software Mayor Robert Ross hopes will ensure proper communication and avoid mistakes made in the past.
Ross said he’s in support of “systems that will add the checks and balances that will ultimately allow us to better serve our customers, while decreasing our liability.”
A breakdown in communication has been touted as the city’s pitfall during the 7-Eleven lawsuit.
Thoroughly training commissioners so they understand their roles and are able to lead productive hearings is vital, said Councilman Jack Matthews. He served on the Planning Commission and, even with a background in real estate, said he could have benefited from training.
According to the audit, the city should hire an ombudsman who would assist members of the public facing obstacles while navigating the department and could make policy suggestions to avoid similar problems in the future.
“I really support the idea of having an ombudsman person. I think every applicant really needs to feel that they have someone who’s tying to help them be successful … and at the same time try and conform to city ordinances,” Matthews said.
Members of the public, although appreciative of the audit, believe the city should take more than just the audit’s recommendations; it should create policies that encourage routine oversight of its procedures.
“The 7-Eleven debacle never should have happened,” said Stan Watkins, also a member of the Parks and Recreation, who was speaking as a resident. “Audits should not occur as a reaction to a problem, but rather be conducted to avoid problems.”
Staff and the council subcommittee comprised of Ross and Lim will continue to review the recommendations and prepare and implementation timeline that would again be presented to the council in April, Patterson said.
“Tonight was a very important step. It marks the beginning of what we expect to be a substantial improvement to the department,” Patterson said. “It’s lifting a cloud of uncertainty and it sets a good example for the rest of the [city].”
To review the Zucker Systems CDD Audit visit www.cityofsanmateo.org.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106