July 1, 2013 - From the July, 2013 issue

LA Councilman Mitch Englander's Goal for Merging LA's City Planning with Building and Safety: A Streamlined Process

San Fernando Valley Councilmember Mitch Englander authored a motion approved by the LA City Council in May to consolidate the departments of Planning and Building and Safety. In the following interview, he explains how streamlining LA’s historically convoluted permitting process will help attract business and ensure community benefits. In response to an earlier opinion piece by former Ventura Mayor Rick Cole, Englander explains the merger will not only speed up the planning process, it will reinvent it. The appointment of case managers, online tracking, and departmental collaboration are a few of the strategies Englander envisions to make the new department more transparent, more user-friendly to those outside city hall, and more in synch with a larger planning vision for LA.


Mitch Englander

"We will still be a project-by-project process. Project-by-project will always be part of that process, but we need a more streamlined, even, level playing field as it pertains to those project-by-project initiatives."

Mitch, as the author of the LA City Council motion to merge the Los Angeles Department of City Planning with the Department of Building and Safety, share what prompted your action and its objectives?

Mitchell Englander: About 13 years ago, far before I ever worked for the City of Los Angeles, I worked with neighborhood groups and activists, small developers and others who were having a difficult time navigating the city, whether it was in support or trying to build opposition to a project. There is a lot of frustration because of inconsistent interpretations of working with various departments—if you asked five people the same question, you’d get six or seven different answers, whether on specific codes or relating to stopping or helping a specific type of project. There has always been a lot of frustration.

I put together a small working group back then with Mayor Jimmy Hahn, and that group continued through the Hahn Administration and was reestablished under the Villaraigosa administration. It came to be known as DIAC, the Development Industry Advisory Committee. Furthermore, in survey after survey, year after year, it was identified that Los Angeles was the most unfriendly business city. In fact, a recent BizFed survey found in two main categories why the City of Los Angeles was so business unfriendly: one was taxation, the business tax (which is something I’d be happy to discuss eliminating in a separate interview); the second was bureaucracy involved with relocating and expanding businesses, and the fact that you often had to go through up to 23 different departments to open a new business, a restaurant, whatever, or to relocate or expand an existing business.

That hasn’t changed, and that’s something we have direct control over—hence the idea of creating a streamlined transport process with direct accountability, which has been successful in many other jurisdictions. 

How might the planned merger of Planning and Building and Safety improve the city’s planning process and regulation of building permits?

The idea is, when you have all these different functions in various departments, it leads to different interpretations of law, process, and policy. Combining those under one roof, bridging silos, providing clarity on policy, zoning practice, technology enhancements, organizational realignment—the whole streamlining effort will stop you from being bounced around various departments, waiting for interpretations from departments who operate with very different missions and functions. You get through that overabundance of misinformation and regulation, developing a customer service approach, which can develop a measurement metric.

While such reforms are perhaps appropriate for Building and Safety, how would the merger improve Los Angeles’ city planning?

Right now, once you gain approval for a project, you still have to gain multiple clearances from different departments, which not only amplifies the confusion but also lengthens the permitting process and timeline, ultimately affecting the customer’s bottom line. That’s why a lot of businesses don’t want to come here; it can take months and months, and in many cases years, to get approvals. There is no timeline certainty and the risks are too great.

The other part of that is often, if something is set with conditions through the planning process (for example design, conditions that follow through on mitigations, community benefits, etc.), those conditions are not followed through on and are lost in the shuffle because they are operated within different departments and they are not cohesive.

Update us on the status of revamping the city’s Building and Safety bureaucracy?

It’s the bureaucracy of the entire system. It’s not one specific department; it is the fact that you have to be bounced around to different departments. This has been an ongoing discussion for the last twenty years. You have to go through so many different steps and procedures, and you lose the protection not only for the applicant in the business but for the community as well.             

Oftentimes neighborhood councils, homeowner associations, stakeholders, residents, etc., have the ability to negotiate community benefits and protections that are then lost, and we find out only after the fact that they were missed.

The real issue here is that it’s not one specific department. In fact, that’s why there was an attempt to go from “12 to 2.” That, too, failed, and now is the time to look at revamping the entire process to make it clear, transparent, and open, so that people have an understanding of what’s expected of them.

The other part of that is the cross-pollination between departments with the consolidation creating opportunities for collaboration and understanding in the processes of each project.

Mitch, some have argued for years that LA’s planning process, as opposed to many of its neighboring jurisdictions, relies too much on political discretion and that the LA City Council likes it that way. Are the critics wrong? They assert that the alternative—having well prepared community plans and more planning-by-right—is not, never has never been, nor will be a council priority. 

Absolutely, and that’s the problem. The process as it is right now is so complicated that only those that know how to navigate it, the major players, lobbyists, expeditors, and those truly connected can get things done… 

With the implementation of the proposed merger of LA’s city departments, will the resulting city planning process—which is now mostly project-by-project—be less discretionary? Will council offices play less of a role in the approval process?

Not at all. In fact, one of the beauties of doing this now is that we’re going through a comprehensive zoning rewrite. Our zoning codes are antiquated and archaic. When they were first written in 1946, they were less than 75 pages. Now it’s close to 1000 pages. It’s not online-friendly where it’s clear and can be easily understood. There are a lot of different interpretations, and therefore it is oftentimes manipulated to be discretionary only as it pertains to those who are well connected.

Most critics of Los Angeles city land use planning believe, as you suggest, that the city’s processes are tortuous and bureaucratic. But are you suggesting that a merger will result in the City abandoning reliance on project-by-project approvals and relying more, instead, on community plans and planning-by-right?

We will still be a project-by-project process. Project-by-project will always be part of that process, but we need a more streamlined, even, level playing field as it pertains to those project-by-project initiatives. It’s an expensive nightmare for developers, and it’s also exhausting and cumbersome for the average citizen to navigate to fight to protect their community from a project. So we need a clear approach and an understanding of what’s expected from departments and developers.

The council has twice hired consultants, at great expense, to look at the City’s development process and to recommend reforms. But neither of the last two reports, including the one issued at great expense less than 18 months ago, recommended a merger of City Planning and Building and Safety. How then did a merger become the council’s highest reform priority?

It’s the one that makes sense, but all the other priorities are critically important as well. Take technology, for example. Without the technological overlay and enhancement, none of it works either. We’ve got to have a tracking system where the average citizen, stakeholder, or the applicants themselves, can follow a project every step of the way.

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There have been a lot of consultants that have looked at various aspects that will all need to be incorporated in this endeavor. Consolidation—looking at streamlining and having fewer departments and less chance of error in interpretations every step of the way—has always been an underlying element. So it’s looking at the totality of all of those reports, and everything leads to having a consolidated effort.

In a Planning Report opinion piece by Rick Cole earlier this week, he asserts: “Simply speeding up [LA City’s] dysfunctional process is clearly not the solution. The primary problem isn’t that the production line is too slow. The primary problem is that it is producing crap.” Your response? 

I do agree that it’s “producing crap.” That’s been my frustration as well, and that’s what we hope to fix in this. But I absolutely disagree that speeding up a bad process is the intention of this at all. It’s in fact just the opposite; it’s changing the process.

Changing the process is what we’ve got to look at, and that’s what everyone agrees with. The fact is that the process is broken, the customer service experience is poor, and there are no integrated and seamless services.

Co-location and cross-pollination will help reinvent the process. Also key is having a case manger assigned to each specific case so you can hold someone accountable, so you have a point of contact, so you have one person responsible for each and every project, and they can’t just hand it off to another department. That’s changing the culture; that’s changing the process.

While you create the efficiencies and ability to streamline, you also get the benefit of accountability and transparency, which is also missing in this process.

Let TPR afford you an opportunity to respond to another of Rick Cole’s assertions. He writes: “What truly matters, of course, is the guiding vision of the combined department. In hard times, it is understandable that long-term vision would be less valued than immediate results. Great cities and great organizations, however, don’t abdicate their futures to the crassly transactional. Both ends of the planning and building continuum are important—making great places requires both effectively maintaining an overall vision and efficiently implementing it project by project. But what if there is no long-term vision, but simply a mandate to “streamline” short-sighted decision-making?”           

In addition to streamlining an unbelievably opaque process, what’s the planning vision that emerges from adoption by the city of a merger? 

That’s part of it as well—the fact that when you’ve got long-term planning, in terms of dealing with general plans and sustainable growth and TOD, all of that is just mildly interesting unless you can balance it with true smart implementation plans. So the long-term visioning doesn’t go away; the problem now is the implementation. If you’ve got regional transportation plans, smart growth initiatives, environmentally-friendly programs that you’re trying to implement from a planning perspective, all of those are interesting. But unless they are implemented holistically and not just project-by-project, but with accountability in how the process is driven, then the vision is worthless.

So it’s how you implement those visions as well. Then you’ve got to track those visions, and you’ve got to be able to measure and balance them. If we have different silos and 32 different departments trying to implement their own vision, how do we track and have a matrix for making sure we’re meeting those objectives? The whole idea is to look at this through a new lens, applying those long-term visioning plans, but implementing them correctly.

Built into the LA City ordinance you championed, and which has now been adopted, is authorization to hire a consultant, not to address the merits of a merger, but to address how to implement it. What did the council have in mind? 

There was a multitude of directives that came out of the action, the first and foremost being working with stakeholders, making sure that the consultant will reach out to neighborhood councils and developers and to department staff who are critical of this initiative. The consultant is expected not to come up with a dream, plan, or vision, but an implementation and realignment plan.

The council and mayor have passed my motion to implement this merger effective January 1, 2014. The role of this consultant will be to identify what co-locating means; to identify all the MOUs and the work functions and workloads; to create those streamlined processes; to hear feedback; to get into the details of how it’s going to be a smooth transition for all; and to ensure that different stakeholders have a say in the process, as well.

A number of merger critics have asserted that there was very little outreach and insufficient public debate regarding the planned merger of departments. Are you satisfied, given the purported significance of your motion, with the public input and public debate?  

Here’s the thing: the outreach has been everyone pounding their heads against the wall for 20 years saying, “How are we going to fix this system?”

The question was asking about public involvement in the crafting of the ordinance to consolidate the two departments: Planning and Building and Safety.

This is going to be a fluid and open transition. This is not going to be something where we pull the trigger on January 1 and the process changes. This will be constantly evolving, constantly reworked, tweaked, improved, and enhanced.

The idea of having a case manger, a tracking system, and technology enhancements, is that people will continuously work to improve what we’re moving forward with. It’s time to move LA forward, that’s what we’re working towards today. Insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It’s time we did something different and expect great results, and that’s where we’re headed. 

To conclude, how would you compare and contrast Los Angeles’ planned consolidation with Mayor of San Diego Bob Filner’s decision to undo the merger of San Diego’s planning and development departments, and his selection of Bill Fulton, the former Mayor of Ventura, to be his new city planning director? Is newly elected Mayor Filner’s decision misguided?

I haven’t just been following San Diego. I’ve been following a lot of other cities, and there’s a long list that have merged.

Pasadena, Burbank, and Glendale have done consolidation successfully over the years, and most of them report back that it’s been very successful. In San Diego, I think they’ve had other fiscal emergencies far worse than ours, and they’ve tried to rebrand and revamp many different things in different ways. It’s never a one-size-fits-all, look at one particular city and see what works for them, solution. We know what we’ve been doing doesn’t work, and if they want to follow what we’ve been doing that doesn’t work, they’re in for a rude awakening. 

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