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Evaluating the Half Moon Bay Planning Department

Meeting Tuesday evening addresses recommendation for outsourcing Half Moon Bay's Planning Department.

Tuesday evening there was a joint meeting at the Ted Adcock Center with both the Half Moon Bay City Council and the Planning Commission to hear the results of the Matrix Consulting Group, who was commissioned by the City Council to evaluate the Planning Department.

There were roughly a couple dozen members of the public at the 5:30 p.m. meeting, which began with Gary Golitz, an officer of Matrix, providing a 4.5-page overview of the study. A copy of the agenda can be found here.

Following Golitz’s overview, the public was invited to speak, and we did.

A total of eight speakers — from a developer and realtor to a former Half Moon Bay planning director and a resident going through the process of trying to open a business — generously provided comments, concerns, opinions, and ideas.

Of the 53 recommendations contained in the Report, No. 41 drew the most comments. Most speakers that spoke strongly opposed outsourcing Half Moon Bay's Planning Department. Words like continuity, knowledge, background, the Coastal Act were heard in abundance.

“Skin in the game” wove its way through those comments, and rightfully so. All speakers spoke well to point.

The speaker that got the most feedback was Don Godshall, a local resident who is currently going through the process of opening a restaurant called Jersey Joes in the Stone Pine Shopping Center.

His hands-on, ongoing dealings with the Planning Department raised serious concerns with document management, predictability, vague expectations, unknown obstacles, unresponsiveness and more. He had planned on opening his second store here (the first is in San Carlos) in August, but due to ambiguity, lost and misplaced documents, unforeseen requirements and more, he is now hoping for a January opening. That extra time equates to money (expenses) and many other resources expended that should have been clear before he undertook the difficult task of opening a business in Half Moon Bay; and his real-time comments were not lost on both the Council members and the Planning Commissioners. They’ve heard them before.

 A few of the primary points addressed from the Report’s recommendations were:

• Updating the City’s General Plan

• Updating the City’s LCP

• Updating the City’s zoning

• Using a GIS Mapping System

• Outsourcing the HMB Planning Department

Matrix did a fine job in their evaluation, but truth be told, there was nothing in the Report that wasn’t already known by all; but by paying for the evaluation and getting the results in an 85-page report that is clear, concise, and element-based, we now have it all in one location, and we now have a clear framework in writing that can be referred to and used as a basis to move forward.

This is a very big deal — but only if it is acted on.

To that end: after the public spoke, it went back to the joint bodies. There was discussion by all members of both bodies; lots of questions, comments, concerns and thoughts on direction, but when 6:30 p.m. rolled around, which was the scheduled closing time of the meeting, the ball was squarely in the Council’s court as they all went back and forth between themselves, Golitz and the City Manager, in a sincere effort to determine the next step — and it bogged down there.

All Council members felt strongly that we should act on this report immediately; they just couldn’t seem to come to consensus on exactly how. Priorities like where to start were at issue.

The meeting had to stop by 7 p.m. because the Planning Commission was scheduled to start their meeting at 7 p.m., and they had a full agenda so that’s when the meeting concluded.

When Mayor Alifano closed the meeting with the gavel hitting the table, here’s what we knew:

•  that there will be another Special Meeting (both bodies) in January

• that the Council wanted to get something going now

• that each Council member had a different idea on how and where to start

• that that sorting out the 53 recommendations in terms of priority will have to wait until the next meeting

• that there was a split between Council members on how that would occur.

For example, Naomi Patridge challenged the Mayor and Vice-Mayor when both directed the City Manager and staff to come back at the next meeting with the 53 recommendations prioritized.

Patridge asked, “How is staff going to know what our priorities are?”

She’s got a point, however, the City Manager should have a very solid sense of what they should be, and I was hoping she would step up and offer: “Yes, members of the Council — I will review all 53 recommendations, sort them out in terms of how I understand your priorities to be from what I’ve heard here tonight and present you with 4 to 6 options at our next meeting. I will present them in descending order of how I believe you feel and what I believe fits the needs of the City. We can review them then and make whatever adjustments you deem appropriate at that meeting.”

I didn’t hear that, but I am hopeful that that’s what we see when these bodies reconvene in January. I hope we get traction here because it is absolutely necessary if we are to get Half Moon Bay moving in a solid and productive direction, with structure, goals, a game plan, and the desire that momentum can provide. We so desperately need this and we need it done right, not fast.

I have six pages of notes that I’d be happy to share if anyone has any questions. Ask my questions. I will do my best to answer and if I don’t know the answer, I will say so and will try to find the answer for you.

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Christa Bigue November 30, 2012 at 11:54 PM
What are the pros and cons of outsourcing the Half Moon Bay Planning Dept? One has to wonder if better management is needed considering Godshall's experience trying to open Jersey Joes. But then you have to worry about things like "continuity, knowledge, background, the Coastal Act" which were all brought up in this meeting. Thoughts anyone?
George Muteff December 01, 2012 at 06:46 PM
Since you asked, Christa... I was one of the speakers at that meeting and I came prepared with a written presentation. Maybe that would help answer a few of the questions, so here it is, in segments due to character limits: We finally have something to look at; a map, if you will, in writing. There have been many adverse actions over years that have cumulatively placed our Planning Department in its current state, as recognized by Matrix. The economic downturn has played a role. That part, however, will change and we need to be prepared. Clearly turnover within City positions has contributed to the lacking our Planning Department has exhibited, which is to be expected. The City’s sharp reduction to staff expenditures, coupled with the constant turnover of positions and leadership does not lend itself to confidence and productivity by those remaining. The right Planning Director, however, could turn that around. The Report that Matrix provides appears to be fairly comprehensive if also fairly standard. There are some very solid points contained in the Report, and a few I take exception to.
George Muteff December 01, 2012 at 06:47 PM
The analysis Matrix uses is the proper starting point and affords us a clear ‘element based’ study, meaning the report is organized in a way that allows us to focus on single elements of our Planning Department without ambiguity or clutter. It shows us some of the elements that are good and some that need attention. For example: Predictability, Fair treatment, Accurate and accessible information, and Timely processing are all critical elements of a well run Department. Matrix provides some of what we have been discussing for near a decade, yet have not done. For example: The City should conduct a comprehensive update of its General Plan and the Planning Department should then update the zoning ordinances. Maps using a GIS system would be another example. Clarifying Accountability and Increasing Predictability are of course essential to a well run Department.
George Muteff December 01, 2012 at 06:48 PM
The Report spends much time on the need to update our General Plan, noting a complete lack of continuity, consistency and effectiveness of a Plan that has been haphazard and contradictory to this point. One example that bares noting, particularly with our legal history, would be our LCP. It is a daunting task at this point because there is so much to do, but each journey starts with the first step. We need to take that first step now. I do not, however, agree with the Report in its entirety. Of the 53 recommendations the most offensive and dangerous recommendation provided is #41; that we outsource our Planning Department. I could not disagree more -- and we have already had a taste of why. HMB is entirely in the Coastal Zone, and therefor unique within the State. HMB has an abysmal record regarding land use and that record continues to drain our resources. Partnering with or using an outside source for our planning would only place us in a worse position. How would someone with no skin in the game from over the hill possibly understand issues that are unique to HMB? Outsourcing our Planning Department would be a huge mistake that would cost us even more. We need our own Planning Director and Department. Please don’t step over dollars to pick up pennies. Thank you very much for your hard work.
Laura McHugh December 31, 2012 at 05:07 PM
I like that - don't step over dollars to pick up pennies. The problem with a report like this - comprehensive in its 53 recommendations but lacking in prioritization - is that the bulk may be hiding an agenda. Is the outsourcing recommendation planted right there in the middle so as to not be seen? I don't mean to sound paranoid, but a good report presents issues and also a framework for understanding the priorities. Or if not in the report itself, those who commissioned the report need to have been prepared with a framework to make sense of what they receive. Otherwise, what you have is a can of worms that got opened up and that just ends up looking like more mis-management. This is what bothers me most about this whole affair - that we have a City Manager who cannot manage and foresee that these issues will come up. Doesn't Planning report to the City Manager? Isn't managing cities pretty standard work these days? Sure, the issues are unique to each city - the desires for the community, the mix of cultures and aspirations, etc. are unique. BUT THE PROCESS OF MANAGING THAT IS NOT. That is what a City Manager does - manages the city's myriad priorities. I say what we need is not a focus on Planning, but a new City Manager who understands the issues and is willing and able to manage to make HMB a vibrant community for all of its citizens. Happy New Year.

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