City Council Opts to Contract Out Planning Department

Now that Half Moon Bay will contract for planning services, City Council gives current associate planner and one other staff member 60-90 days notice.


There was another Special Meeting of the Half Moon Bay City Council Monday, where three topics on the agenda were discussed:

• planning services staffing options and citizen advisory committee

• organizational assessment findings and recommendations

• adopt the five-year strategic plan

However, I was there for only one item: outsourcing the Half Moon Bay Planning Department. As some of you may know, I have been writing about this matter since it was first agendized in November 2012.

The buzz on this started when the City hired another outside consultant, Matrix Consulting Group, to evaluate the Half Moon Bay Planning Department. The November 2012 article I wrote was the first peek at the 83-page evaluation that they produced at the joint Planning Commission/City Council meeting. Here’s the Agenda, complete with the Report, for that November 27th meeting.

The long and short of it is that the Council voted to send out Requests For Proposals (RFP) to some of the firms they picked from those that had responded to the Request For Qualifications (RFQ). The City received the RFQs back in January. The RFPs are the next to last step to done deal. The only thing left is to pick the firms after receiving the proposals back.

The City decided to take a two-pronged approach:

1)  RFPs will go out to the chosen firms for long range items — things like performing our LCP Update, our General Plan and such.

2) RFPs will also go out to firms that the City feels will meet our immediate needs — things like projects currently in the pipeline, ones that are coming, etc.

What does all this mean? It means that Half Moon Bay, by outsourcing the Planning Department, has now become a fully engaged “Contract City.” Every Department the City has is now outsourced. Every firm that Half Moon Bay has outsourced a department to, is located over the hill.

According to the Council, and you can read it in yesterday’s Agenda staff report linked above, they will now hire four new administrators to ... well ... administrate the consultants. IMHO, outsourcing the Planning Department was a big mistake.

Here’s why: Half Moon Bay’s Achilles Heel is land use. Unquestionably the best example of that is Beachwood, but there have been many other judgments and settlements besides that one. We here in Half Moon Bay are 100 percent in the Coastal Zone — every square inch. I don’t know of another town in California that can make that claim. That means we are under the microscope of the California Coastal Commission (CCC) and everything we do has to pass the muster of the Coastal Act, which of course is enforced by the CCC. All that is described in detail in our Local Coastal Plan/Land Use Plan and was Certified by the CCC in 1996. It includes everything from definitions, to zoning — from what is preferred locations for development to what can wait until the preferred locations are developed and so much more.

Our LCP is a hodgepodge of Ordinances, one added after another, often contradictory, since the 1996 Certification. It needs an overhaul, not just updating. This specific item has been a priority issue since 2004, but the Council(s) since then just haven’t gotten it done. In fact, they never even took a step in that direction.

When we look at the turnover in the City, it’s not hard to understand why the Planning Department needs work. Since the November 2005 City election, we have had four City Managers, and the fourth Planning Director was hired last week. As a Director of any department, one would think that their top priority, the No. 1 on their list under job description, would be to make sure their department was shipshape. If it’s not, fix it. That is a department head’s primary function; but apparently not in Half Moon Bay. Not one Director, not one performed their primary function, and as a result, the department is a mess, and it is not the fault of staff. They have been doing the best they can with what they have, but they have so little and there have been so many demands.

For example, we have one Associate Planner. One. She is great and has been here nine years. She earned a national certification for planning on her own time and using her own resources. She took the classes and passed all the testing and paid for it herself. She knows the City inside out, knows all the protocols for any project, knows the LCP and the Coastal Act inside and out, and knows our history.

If you want to get something done, she’s your person. Been here 9 years and is still an Associate Planner. That should tell anyone all you need to know about team effort and the leadership that the Planning Directors didn’t bring. Oh, did I mention that she is so nice, so easy to get along with, and so professional?

Maybe, and this is just a thought, but maybe she deserves a raise and a promotion — like to Planning Director and give her what she needs to make it work. But, that will not happen, and we will lose a very talented, very knowledgable planner to planners that don’t live here, don’t know the history, our LCP, the Coastal Act and that don’t have any reasonable relationship with the Coastal Commission.

The Half Moon Bay City Council gave her and the other staff member 60-90 days notice last night — in effect.

There has been no reasonable opportunity for public input, save the brief public comments at the Joint Meeting last November. Not one Planning Commissioner was solicited for input and none was provided — the City’s experts in planning, and not one was asked anything by anyone.

I hope I’m wrong here, but I have very little doubt that outsourcing something as "personal" as our Planning Department will cause us future litigation. I just hope we don’t have another Beachwood as a result.

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Stacie Chan March 21, 2013 at 12:41 AM
Wow. George, do you know if any other Bay Area cities outsource their Planning Department? I know outsourcing police departments has become a trend, but I've never heard of this before.
George Muteff March 21, 2013 at 01:03 AM
I am not aware of any, Stacie, and none were offered at the meeting. Typically one will see a municipality recite similar municipalities for things like negotiations, for example. It is standard faire of operations with municipalities and government in general, but I didn't hear any discussion along that line Monday evening. I will check into it, however, as it is a good question. As long as we're on this line of discussion, I will add here that not only am I not aware of another municipality that outsources their planning, but there is something on record, through litigation, that speaks to this matter. In October, 2012, we have this: "Costa Mesa's outsourcing fight could be felt throughout state" http://www.ocregister.com/articles/city-375879-cities-services.html In November, 2012, we have this: "State top court won't hear Costa Mesa outsourcing appeal" http://www.ocregister.com/articles/court-379069-city-california.html Aside from the obvious strains of outsourcing the HMB Planning Department, the City may well have a legal precedent in Costa Mesa to account for. From incredibly bad, to worse. We'll see. It almost seems that if there is a problem, one can find it in HMB. If there is no problem, HMB will create one. I am just sick over the whole matter. This is but one more example of something that should never have gotten this far; another example of something that just shouldn't have happened, IMHO.
Jo March March 21, 2013 at 01:05 PM
I'm confused. They elected city council has opted to let outsiders make decisions about planning matters in HMB? Time for another recall.
Brian Ginna March 21, 2013 at 05:14 PM
The agenda report for Monday's meeting notes: "M-Group currently performs all planning services of an in-house Planning Department for the City of Petaluma." Thanks, George, for the updates. IMHO as well, this is a big mistake. The City Manager has absolutely no concrete experience in managing an outsourced Planning Department. How will the firm providing the services be held accountable? At least one of the Council seems to get it: "Mayor Rick Kowalczyk made a push that the city's experienced planning staff should be given top consideration for any contract jobs. “It’s our responsibility to fix things when they’re broken; it’s also our responsibility to do right by our staff,” he said. “I have confidence we can do both things.” Hope that happens. Having an experienced person get hired by a contracting firm to provide the same services sometimes makes sense. Hopefully whatever firm takes over uses some.
Tim Costello March 22, 2013 at 05:17 AM
This is just another case that just makes me sick. More contract employees, really? Then hire 4 more administrators?? What is wrong with this picture? The City manager needs to go.


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