Grand Jury bulldogs permit process

July 20, 2006

Well COWs, the verdict’s in and the jury has found the Town guilty of not providing the “Town citizens with efficient, consistent, and timely services”. The San Mateo Grand Jury issued a report entitled “Trouble in Paradise (The Woodside Development Review Process)”. The Grand Jury took a look at the Development Process in our Town and concluded, among other things, that “Woodside’s permit process tends to be a series of fragmented activities by the various reviewing departments. Because the process is not well coordinated, submittals occasionally fall between the cracks and deadlines are missed. This causes the effectiveness and credibility of the process to suffer.” The COWS we have heard from tell us it is more than occasionally and it feels like being lassoed and hog-tied.

The Grand Jury made 7 very reasonable recommendations including: restructuring the management of the development review process; creating a Fast Track permit program for less complicated applications; ensuring adequate staff training; updating the Town’s database of building codes, maps, and pamphlets; and ensuring that communication between staff and applicants expedites the permit process. Our favorite was number 3 – create a complaint board where disgruntled applicants can have their concerns addressed. We think an independent citizen’s advocate committee for this purpose would be a grand idea.

We have had the Kaplan report, the Management Partners, Inc. report, and now the Grand Jury Report. Surely, the Council must be getting the picture that there really is trouble in our pasture. Isn’t it time for them to pony up and take care of the herd?

Susan George and her staff are still in denial. They blame the residents. They told the Grand Jury that, among other things: applicants don’t like government regulation in general; many applicants are accustomed to being catered to and getting their way in life; applicants’ desire for equal treatment leads many to feel that, despite complex and differing details, if it is allowed for one party, then it should be allowed for others. Shouldn’t the Code be interpreted in the same way for everyone? Staff complained about the burden of public records requests. Of course, government is required by law to provide public records. We are moo-ved to confess that COW makes public records requests but only because we want information. They also blame facilitators saying that because facilitators challenge them when they think they are applying the wrong rules, they “discourage flexibility by causing the staff to apply rules rigidly to all applicants”. Again, shouldn’t the standard be that the rules are properly interpreted and applied so that everyone is treated fairly and equally? The Grand Jury found that “rules are applied inconsistently due to errors in judgment of relatively inexperienced people. Inconsistencies foster the perceptions of favoritism or capriciousness.”

The Grand Jury also acknowledged that the fear of retaliation is “understandable” because the same staff may remain on the job for a long time, and applicants may need additional permits in the future. The Council should not just write these concerns off or try to explain them away. Passing the buck and asking “where’s the beef?” won’t work. There is trouble right here in Woodside my friend and it is time for someone to bulldog it to the ground.

The fact in the report that was most interesting to us was that fees and permits account for 16% of all General Fund revenues, the Town’s second largest source of funds after property taxes. That’s no hay. Maybe if the process was expedited there would be a reduction in income. It also appears that sometimes confused staff have told applicants that permits (and fees) are needed where no permit is required. If so, that would fill the Town trough unfairly. Maybe there should be an audit of these funds. It is something to think about.

The Council will consider its response to the Grand Jury at their public meeting on Tuesday, July 25th. The report asks the Council to respond that they are in substantial agreement with the recommendations. If there are those among us who do not fear being branded, they should submit comments to the Town Council for the record.

Here is the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, the response drafted by the staff begins on page 79:

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