November 30, 1991 - From the November, 1991 issue

TPR Interview: Zucker Elaborates on L.A. Planning Department Audit

During November, interviews will be taking place for a new Planning Director for the City of Los Angeles. The agenda for these interviews has been shaped by the recent management audit of the Planning Department which described the planning process in Los Angeles at a “crisis” state. (as seen here). 

To explore in more detail the issues raised by the audit and to discuss its implementation, The Planning Report interviewed Paul Zucker of Zucker Systems, the San Diego management consulting firm that completed the study. 

Your report contained strong lan­guage about the lack of true plan­ning being done in the City. How can the Department get away from the endless ICO’s and Specific Plans that divert resources from citywide planning? 

By creating clear, up-to-date policies through a new General Plan. The current General Plan is so out of date that someone could challenge it from a legal perspective, so the city needs to address this immediately. More importantly, I hope that city policymakers see the need to make decisions based on well-thought-out plans, rather than ad hoc political decisions. The Department needs to sell that and, in the process, help the elected officials solve real city prob­lems. 

You made a distinction in your re­port between citywide planning and neighborhood planning. Could you elaborate as to what matters are citywide in nature and what issues belong at the neighborhood level for decision? 

In a city the size of Los Angeles it doesn’t make sense to do everything out of City Hall. A reflection of this is the tacit agreement among the 15 Councilmembers that they’ll stay out of each others’ districts. Our report was supportive of home rule, and agrees that each Councilmember should be the key policymaker on local issues. 

But we raised the question of whether there are issues — such as air pollution, certain aspects of trans­portation, affordable housing, and undesirable uses such as prisons and sewage treatment plants — that transcend districts. 

Also, when citywide issues are not solved, we pit one area against another, and wealthier areas tend to get a bigger piece of the pie. We felt that the Planning Department does not pay adequate attention to socioeco­nomic issues or to some of the lower income areas. 

What recommendations were in your report to speed the processing of per­mits and EIR’s, and are these recom­mendations likely to be implemented? 

The City of Los Angeles is a mixed bag in this area. Though we think the City should perform these activities faster, the City is actually faster than many other communities in process­ing use permits, variances, rezoning, and general plan amendments. But on Environmental Impact Reports, the City is in terrible shape: we have cases where EIR’s have taken as long as three years, and that’s unacceptable. 

There are many problems impact­ing the EIR process, including lack of automation and proper procedures. Our report contains numerous recommen­dations in this regard. 

However, the bigger problem is that the City simply does not have the trained environmental staff or techni­cal specialists that we would expect in a city the size of Los Angeles. The short-term answer to this problem is the hiring of consultants. The long-term answer is training staff and hiring the appropriate expertise. 

Your report had much to say about the overall management of the department. What were your central findings on management? 

We found that the Department does not have a strong management struc­ture — the managers tend to be techni­cal people who’ve moved into man­agement without adequate training. We’re recommending major training programs to fill those gaps. Of course, all of these management issues start at the top, so the City needs a Planning Director who can gain the confidence of the Council and Mayor and be a voice in the community for good plan­ning.

So the existing staff is trainable?

Yes, they are highly trainable, but they need good leadership. Though we didn’t comment on this exten­sively in the report, if you compare Los Angeles to other similar-sized planning departments you will not find the level of sophistication and experience you would expect to find. There’s no real economist on staff, no recognized urban designer, no ex­perts on CEQA, no trained biologists. So there is a need to upgrade the staff in certain areas. 

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We’re about to have the selection of a new Planning Director. What does your study indicate should be the essential qualities for the next direc­tor? 

First, L.A. has a complex and dif­ficult political structure, so this per­son must know how to work within that structure without letting it dominate the Department. Second, the Planning Director must be able to carry a message for good planning and get support in the City, building a coalition for the Department. We’re not certain the Planning Director can both manage the Department and handle those external issues, so we think the City should have an Assis­tant Director who would do much of the internal management of the De­partment. 

With these recommendations running up against L.A.’s current fiscal constraints, how do you confront the costs of these recommendations?

We’ve suggested that ways be found to raise up-front money, prob­ably through a bond or certificate of participation, and billing some of that back to the development process. 

It also appears there may be non-­general fund revenues available for planning through redevelopment funds, block grants, and transporta­tion funds. We’ve also suggested that the department stop duplicating other departments. For example, because of our mapping recommendations, the Department can eliminate the entire cartographer job classification.

Some critics have suggested that the political situation in the city creates an unhealthy environment for any planning director, and that the Planning Commission has not had the credibility or leadership to create a political environment in which planning can take place. How would you advise a candidate for Director about this political environment?

First, going back to our criteria for a Planning Director, you need some­one with political skill to run the department. Second, I would advise him or her to ask for certain things in relation to their coming to the City­ — certain budgetary or staffing assur­ances, and perhaps even some assur­ances on political issues. 

We particularly feel the Planning Commission is an untapped resource to assist the Department in the politi­cal arena. Their role can come not only from the structural powers of the Commission, but perhaps more im­portantly from the political persua­sion and leadership of individual commission members and the chairman — a solid voice supporting good planning in Los Angeles. 

Do you feel the implementation of the report has been adequate, and what role do you see for private con­sultants such as university faculty or yourself in the implementation? 

There are several needs — con­sultants may play a role in the training area, in raising funds, and in technical areas. Also, in making the transition to a more capable department, other gaps may have to be filled with con­sultants, as in the general plan effort. 

We are very concerned about implementation. Many people are skeptical that the recommendations of the report will be implemented. We believe the city is at a crossroads: unless the report is taken seriously with a major push on implementa­tion, the Department will stagnate or go backwards. 

Good planning has much to offer the City of Los Angeles. With serious issues and problems that must be ad­dressed, the City can afford no less than an outstanding Planning Depart­ment.

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