SAN MATEO -- A year after the city's 7-Eleven imbroglio reached its climax, officials released a consultant's 265-page report on how to improve San Mateo's understaffed Community Development Department.
The report, which cost the city roughly $45,000, is measured and future-oriented; it includes praise for the department. It does not assign blame for, or even investigate, the planning division's ill-fated 2012 approval of a new 7-Eleven on San Mateo Drive. The council overturned that decision in January 2013 after neighbors protested, leading 7-Eleven and the property owner to sue the city.
The management audit by San Diego-based Zucker Systems includes 224 recommendations, big and small, from filling the vacant position of community development director and hiring other staff to checking office supplies once a week. The City Council will take up the recommendations, and decide which ones to implement, beginning next month.
Three Community Development Department employees resigned or retired following the council's reversal, including director Lisa Grote. The controversy helped bring about the audit.
At a briefing Wednesday, Councilman David Lim said the report solidified his feeling that the department has been badly understaffed since 2009, when the recession caused development activity to plummet, leading the city to eliminate more than a dozen positions in community development, which consists of several divisions, including planning, building and code enforcement.
"We cut too close to the bone -- that's the big takeway," said Lim, adding that the audit, based in part on anonymous interviews with staffers, gives the city valuable insight into the functioning of the department. "We got a pure, unedited, unfiltered assessment from the professionals as to what they need to do their jobs better."
The city is already moving to fill seven positions, including a plan checker and a building official, and expects to hire a new community development director by March. Lim added that, with Susan Loftus having departed in the fall, the city hopes to hire a new city manager by April.
Some of the suggested improvements in the audit have to do with streamlining decision-making and improving communication. For instance, Zucker Systems recommends the city designate planners as project managers for cases, giving them the responsibility to check with other departments to make sure all aspects of the task are carried through. Other recommendations include new software for tracking planning applications, which the city is already pursuing.
To read the audit, visit San Mateo's homepage at www.cityofsanmateo.org and look under "Latest News & Announcements."