Map | Courtesy of LandWatch
By Royal Calkins
The Monterey County Board of Supervisors did a good thing the other day, but not good enough.
The board approved a $199,000 contract with a large consulting firm, Citygate of Folsom, to study the functions of the county’s Resource Management Agency, also known informally as the planning department. Or, more informally, as the blankety-blank planning department.
What they should have done instead is contract with someone to investigate the functions and decisions of the agency, which handles land-use planning, building permits, cannabis enterprise applications, public works, county parks and more. They should have instructed the consultant to ask former planning department employees if the rumors are true — that at least a few of them left because their work was being undercut by politics.
As it stands, the contract calls for Citygate to study organization and workflow, recommend possible reorganizations and efficiencies, and talk to developers and builders about their issues with the agency. We can expect that the primary topic of those discussions to be how long the agency takes to get things done — not the integrity of the work.
With unusually high turnover in the planning ranks, the agency has been chronically understaffed in places. Director Carl Holm has argued for more troops but he’s seen few reinforcements.
What the Citygate reps should focus on instead is the concerns of neighbors of existing developments where some RMA requirements are ignored, and by opponents of projects that have prevailed because of campaign contributions and the buddy system.
Some municipal and county governments have actually have gone out of their way to create planning and building departments that struggle to get things done and are susceptible to outside forces. That enhances the ability of top administrators and elected officials to shape results to their liking.
A remarkable study commissioned by Monterey County in the 1990s found that development conditions imposed by the county were routinely ignored. Any changes to the processes since then have been insignificant.
Monterey lawyer Molly Erickson has successfully challenged numerous government planning decisions on behalf of The Open Monterey Project. She told the supervisors Tuesday she was “astonished” by the study’s focus on organizational structure rather than fair process and honest outcome.
She noted that the study was commissioned without public discussion by Lew Baumann, who retired as county administrative office in September.
“The county has worked in secret for years behind closed doors (to complete the contract) and has not had a healthy public discussion and dialogue, even where this is a problem about which the public is very concerned and vocal,” Erickson said in a letter to the board. “Now the county has released a detailed contract that misses the mark, and the county is refusing to consider public feedback, saying the contract has already been prepared.
“The planning department problems have gone on for years and another week or two spent on the contract could make a big difference in how the county spends the public’s money … .”
Erickson offered that the contract should address “competency and consistency.” She noted that Citygate will be reaching out to “stakeholders” but the contract doesn’t identify them.
“The residents of Monterey County do not need another generic report that no one will read and no one will abide by,” she said.
Supervisor Jane Parker voted for the contract but raised concerns about the shallowness of the effort. She said she was struck by the focus on efficiencies instead of fair application of the rules and the extent to which political pressures trump planning principals.
She also complained that while Citygate intends to send numerous staffers here for the five-month project, the only land-use planner on this list is a full-time Lake Tahoe-area planning official who has spent his entire career administering Nevada planning law. Assistant County Administrative Officer Nick Chiulos, who is the county’s point person for the study, responded that the consultants will provide someone expert on California law.
Supervisor Mary Adams, also voted for the contract, and said she hoped the consultants would provide the fodder for several focus groups on the topics involved. Supervisor John Phillips, who often finds himself opposite Parker and Adams on planning issues, said he’s pleased Citygate will be looking at efficiencies. He didn’t talk about that other stuff, like politics, etc.
The RMA has been a problem child for a couple of decades, often bowing to outside pressure. Two decades ago, litigation by land-use activists demonstrated that land-use lawyer Tony Lombardo’s firm held unusual sway within the department and was even writing official planning documents. They called it the Ghostwriting Scandal. A few heads rolled.
Twenty years later, Lombardo still enjoys the reputation as an RMS favorite. Planners have complained to Voices and elsewhere about being overruled by department brass who had been lobbied by Lombardo. Some key departures over the past year have been blamed on that factor.
Lombardo is out of the country and didn’t return a call from Voices.
Land-use activist Mike Weaver of the HIghway 68 Coalition said in his own letter to the supervisors that “if a contract with Citygate can help the current situation, it is a good thing. However, if the recommendation is to further ‘streamline’ processes, it will further complicate processes that are already strained and not working.”
Weaver said the county should focus on five key areas.
First, he said, overworked planners are having trouble monitoring mitigation measures imposed when developments are approved, measures such as adding landscaping or improving drainage.
Second, building code enforcement, followed the agency’s practice of allowing managers to interpret planning regulations on their own without guidance from the Planning Commission or specialists.
Weaver said he also would like to see citizens’ land-use advisory committees, some of which have been marginalized, to be plugged back into the process.
Finally, he said, county officials need to stop requiring county parks to be self-supporting. Making Laguna Seca park pay for itself though auto racing has proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare, he noted, and the other parks are severely understaffed. Hikers have been complaining to the county for years about the unsupervised building of more and more mountain bike trails in the county’s Toro Park, which is supposed to be off limits to bikes, but the park staff says it simply doesn’t have resources to limit the erosion and other issues that the biking creates.
“The motto doing more with less has become getting less for more,” Weaver wrote.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.