July 30, 1991 - From the July, 1991 issue

Audit of Planning Department Depicts L.A.'s Planning in "Crisis"

Without the fanfare of the Chris­topher Commission report, but por­tending a similar need for wholesale change, the long-awaited manage­ment audit of the City of Los Angeles’ Planning Department was released on July 25th by Zucker Systems of San Diego. 

While much of the document merely confirms what critics of the Department had suspected, the 350-page report is an impressive compi­lation. It analyzes and makes recom­mendations on the city’s framework for planning, the upper-level Plan­ning Department management, and the activities and effectiveness of each of the Department’s divisions.

Making particularly interesting reading are the pointed critiques elicited from a survey of Department staff and from a national peer review panel consisting of planning directors from around the country.

With the implementation of this report now at the top of the City’s planning agenda, The Planning Report here presents excerpts from the report’s executive summary, as well as quotes from the Department’s staff and the peer review panel.

Approach and Overall Findings 

In recent years, a significant com­mitment of financial and human resources have been channeled to the City’s Planning Department with the hope of planning and building a better tomorrow. In June 1990, the Mayor and City Council requested outside consulting assistance in determining whether these resources are being used efficiently and effectively and that the Planning Department has the best possible organization structure, planning, and technical resources to meet the complex planning issues and demands of future decades.

This study of the Planning Department was conducted between January and June, 1991. The prime consultant was Zucker Systems of San Diego. Subconsultants were Aroyo Seco Associates, Inc. of Pasadena, and Cordoba Corporation of Los Angeles. Study methodology included group meetings with virtually all of the staff, completion of external questionnaires by staff, a retreat with department management, external interviews, a peer review conducted by six of the county’s leading planning directors, and an operational analysis.

A study of this type focuses on areas for improvement and therefore may not adequately point out the positive things in the city’s planning program. We found many good and exemplary things in our review. By and large, we believe staff, properly managed and trained, is both capable and dedicated. Although employee morale and productivity is at a dangerously low level, we saw many sparks of potential and renewed enthusiasm during the course of the study.

A number of projects are most impressive, such as the implementation of AB283, and the method of funding the proposed balanced growth plan. Additionally, the city has had in place for years a number of progrsesive procedures concerning Zoning Administration, hearing examiners and hearing officers. Many of the permit processes are completing permits in less time than in many other communities throughout California. 

However, citizens are demanding more and more attention to be paid to quality of life issues and thus better planning for those related items…

Planning in Los Angeles is at a crisis level. The city needs to overcome more than a decade of inadequate attention to planning issues.

The City’s General Plan, which is the chief planning document to reflect the city’s vision, is no longer an effective management tool. Council and staff are increasingly forced to respond to citizen pressures with a variety of instruments including Interim Control Ordinance, Specific Plans and a myriad of other incremental approaches. In many respects the planning department is a permitting department rather than a planning department.

There are numerous personnel and organizational issues within the Planning Department…The current classification, compensation, training, organization and structure of the staff impedes the maximum utilization of employees’ skills and their own self-actualization. It is important to note that this dilemma is the result of a number of different factors at play over a number of years. We are recommending that the Department address these issues in a systematic fashion and at all levels throughout the organization.

The Department is substantially out of date from a technological perspective. Telephone systems are inadequate and out-of-date. There is a substantial lack of computer equipment and an even greater lack of effective computer operations and programming.

Finally the Department’s physical work environment is deplorable and counter-productive to its efforts to achieve an efficient and effective service delivery system.

Key Findings and Recommendations

Our report outlines 267 specific recommendations as shown in Table 1. Key findings and recommendations include:

1. General Plan

The General Plan is no longer an effective management tool and is in need of major revisions. We proposed updating the city-wide elements within two years at a cost of $9.2 million. Community plans would be updated over a seven-year period at a cost of $25.6 million.

2.  Management 

We generally found a weak management structure throughout the department. Problems include lack of clarity regarding purpose of the department and expectations of staff. Generally, we found an over-politicized department focused on satisfying the Mayor and City Council rather than providing professional recommendations. There is no proactive work program or clear setting of priorities within the department. There is a lack of “can-do” attitude.

We propose:

  • Setting specific criteria for the appointment of a new planning director.

  • Setting of a clear work program with priorities. 

  • Establishing higher professional standards.

  • A management training program.

3. Staffing and Organization

Staffing and organizational patterns have not kept pace with modern technology, changes in workforce, changes in work environment, or modern management approaches.

We propose:

  • Increasing spans of control.

  • Greater reliance of Associate Zoning Administrator’s skills and experience through expanded roles and responsibilities. 

  • Consolidated employee classifications.

  • Creation of effective training programs throughout the Department.

4. Technology

The department is substantially out-of-date in relation to technology. It is operating with a poor telephone system, a major lack of computers, and a lack of adequate computer systems and programs. The department currently has one PC computer per every 9.5 staff members. A more reasonable ratio would be one for every 1 to 2 staff members. A major investment in additional computers is essential… To correct this problem is a multi-million dollar task that we believe is beyond the capacity of  the planning department to handle alone. Instead, we recommend increased interdepartmental cooperation on systems.

We propose:

  • The Department should abandon its attempt to create a parcel based GIS system and instead join forces with the Bureau of Engineering.

  • Rather than create its own permit processing systems, the Department should join forces with the Building Department.

  • The acquisition of $3,555,000 of new computer equipment and software.

  • Substantial upgrades to the department’s telephone system.

  • Joining with the Bureau of Engineering on a variety of mapping systems.

5. Transportation Planning

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The importance of transportation planning for the city of Los Angeles is a given. However, the planning department has not been a major player in this arena. 

We propose:

  • The Department should formalize its relations on transportation planning.

  • The possible use of tax increment financing for projects surrounding transit stations.

  • Development of transportation models separately from the Community Planning Program.

6. Environmental Impact Reports

The city is taking 2-3 years to process an environmental impact report and staff is processing only one environmental impact report per staffer per year. The city’s entire environmental function lacks the structure and expertise found in most major cities. The environmental process is severely hampered by lack of an adequate general plan and supporting data and research models.

We propose:

  • Immediately transferring staff and hiring consultants to clear the department’s current backlog within six months.

  • A variety of actions to permanently establish a credible environmental function.

7. Social/Economic Issues

In many respects the Department’s work program looks more like what we would expect in a suburban community rather than the nation’s second largest diverse city.

We propose:

  • The department begin a model effort to reshape itself and its work programs to address social/economic issues.

8. Subdivisions and Parcel Maps

The city is taking 178 days to process subdivision and 229 days to process parcel maps when state statutes require a 50 day process.

We propose:

  • A series of recommendations to reduce these items to 120 days for subdivisions and 90 days for parcel maps.

9. Office Space

The department’s physical work environment is deplorable and counter-productive to its efforts to achieve an efficient and effective delivery system.

We propose:

  • A complete reorganization and remodeling of the Department’s work space at a cost of 2 million dollars.

10. Decentralization

Los Angeles is too large a city to make all planning decisions downtown. In the long run, we believe the city should look at a variety of decentralized patterns. Due to the weak management structure overall, decentralization is not recommended at this time.

We propose:

  • Experimentation with decentralization by adding additional functions to the Valley Office.

11. City Attorney

There is a major slow down in enacting planning policy due to the slow response time from the City Attorney’s office. For example, on the average, ordinances are delayed 13 months waiting for City Attorney action.

We propose:

  • Several attorneys should be permanently assigned to planning.

  • A variety of other actions to speed up the process.

12. Implementation and Funding

The total costs to implement this report are estimated at $23,979,600. These costs are offset by a variety of savings estimated at $14,441,000. The net cost to implement the report is roughly $10 million over a 9-year period or $1.1 million per year.

We propose:

  • The Mayor, City Council, Planning Commision and Planning Department should review this report and agree on an implementation plan.

  • A consultant should be hired to help implement the report.

  • Consideration be given to use of a $1-2 million dollar per year override on permits as well as other sources of funding.

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