Planning Department customer always right, council says

People applying for Planning Department approval for any “structure” on their property, even a prefabricated storage shed or a fence, should have a much easier time getting the permit, the City Council said Monday.

Applicants and the community, which includes Realtors and the applicants’ neighbors who are notified of any development, will also be given more information about the planning process so they can save time and money.

The moves arise from a two-month audit of the Planning Department by City Treasurer Pete Lippman requested by the council as part of its goals of permit streamlining and improved relations with city service users.

Audit and response

Lippman’s November report was based on the theory of Total Quality Management, meant to provide organizations with a systematic striving for customer satisfaction. He noted as his first “condition” that permitees consider the process very complicated and view the staff as not well trained in assisting completion of the process. To change the organizational culture from regulatory (“iron fist”) to partnership oriented (“velvet glove”), customer satisfaction should become a priority, Lippman said.

Planning Director Craig Ewing responded in November and again Monday by saying the audit definition of the “customer” was limited to the person at the public counter. The Planning Department also considered “customers” to include phone calls, appointments, conferences and written correspondence with city commissions and committees, applicants, neighbors, interest groups and the media.

Ewing said the audit did not investigate the regulations themselves, how they implement the council’s objectives and how they direct the staff’s actions. Additionally, it takes new planning staff about a year of full-time work to become trained in the complexities of the city’s laws, Ewing said.

Ewing, who has been with the city two years and who has resigned, effective Feb. 14, is the department’s most senior staffer.

“Do words in the audit such as ‘compromise’ and ‘creative alternatives’ accurately describe the proper values for the building and planning staff? Do these words reflect the council’s preferences?” Ewing asked.

“In the past, the council has stated that development in Malibu must be controlled, restricted and, in some cases, discouraged. If the council wishes to allow compromise and staff involvement in creative alternatives, new questions are raised: In what ways is staff to compromise with developers? How should staff offer creative alternatives, especially if it fosters new development?

“I believe the whole purpose of our regulatory system is to implement the values of the council,” Ewing said. “The report needs to state its own assumptions regarding development more openly, so the council can better understand and evaluate its recommendations.”

The council Monday reviewed the audit report, Ewing’s responding memorandum and City Manager Harry Peacock’s analysis of the two documents.

Among the short-term improvements are:

  • Immediately distributing copies of Ewing’s 8-1/2 x 14-inch, color-copy booklet called “Planning Department Zoning Clearance Procedures” to applicants and the Malibu Association of Realtors. The booklet has flow charts and explanatory text. Advertising availability on Channel 15.
  • Producing a video taking a person through the development process. Airing the tape on the city’s Channel 15, and advertising that it is available.
  • The Planning Department counter will be open one night a week. There will be a person there to troubleshoot and answer questions.
  • Offering pre-application consultation, and advertising the pre-application process.
  • Offering a customer feed-back form and prompt departmental response.
  • Putting the permit process on-line.
  • Having greater customer service and interdepartmental training for the Planning, Building and Safety, and Environmental departments. In this way, the applicant would get consistent information from all departments.
  • Developing a sign-up system in the lobby.

The short-range, pilot-project improvements are made to fulfill Lippman’s and Peacock’s overlapping recommendations.

In addition, on Councilman Tom Hasse’s motion, the council unanimously voted to consider hiring additional Planning Department staff for fiscal year 2000-2001.

Councilwoman Joan House also emphasized the need for constant staff improvement and empowerment, part of Lippman’s first recommendation.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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