The Department of Planning and Permitting is taking steps to reckon with the conditions within the department that led to federal charges against five former and current employees for accepting bribes to perform city services.
In the short term, DPP is hiring an outside investigator to examine what department director Dean Uchida calls “serious problems.”
The city’s corporation counsel will use the investigator to examine how current DPP systems work, report whether procedures are being properly followed and identify any breakdowns within the system.
DPP is also hiring a special master with a management and government background to identify management issues to repair problems within the department.
“We believe that the recent incidents were symptoms of a larger problem,” Uchida said at a City Council committee meeting Thursday.
“We believe that the underlying problem involves the lack of alignment with the department’s people, processes and technology.”
To address the permit backlog and delays that Uchida said may have created opportunities for bribing, paper plans for single-dwelling homes will no longer be accepted beginning June 1. By next year, paper plans for additions and alterations will also no longer be accepted. Uchida is looking to implement the same policy for commercial developments, although timing for that has yet to be determined. Instead, all plans will have to be submitted electronically. By going paperless, Uchida hopes it will simplify and streamline the processes at the department.
In the long term, Uchida expects to completely transform the department, “which would involve reorganization and collective bargaining negotiations, changing the culture at DPP that allows for these type of illegal activities to occur.”
The department is still planning to modernize the 20-year-old computer permitting system. Uchida said it will not only streamline the process, but limit the individual ability to modify aspects of the permitting process.
A fully computerized payment system for all permit fees to eliminate cash transactions that include an auditing mechanism is also being considered.
Former City Council Chairman Ernest Martin, who while in office paid close attention to DPP and is now part of a commercial real estate law practice, applauded Uchida and Mayor Rick Blangiardi for taking these steps.
“Any effort to minimize discretionary actions on the part of the reviewing agencies and to streamline the permitting process is welcomed,” he said.
“As frustrating as it was to deal with the numerous complaints from constituents during my time on the City Council who were waiting months upon months for a permit to be issued to build simple single-family home, it is even more daunting in trying to assist clients with navigating the permitting process from the private sector.”