Salt Lake City planning chief ousted in a shake-up by Becker

Published: Tuesday, March 4 2008 12:14 a.m. MST

Mayor Ralph Becker followed through on a campaign promise Monday, shaking up Salt Lake City's planning division — including the forced departure of one administrator — to address residents' frustrations over customer service and planning procedures.

George Shaw is out after a little more than a year as the city's planning director following a review of staff, land-use ordinances and planning policies within Salt Lake City's Community and Economic Development Department.

The city soon will begin a nationwide search to replace Shaw, the longtime Sandy planner who joined Salt Lake City's staff on Jan. 17, 2007. The search is expected to take several months.

The public's lack of confidence in the planning division and the reorganization of staff to solve ongoing problems necessitated the move, Becker said.

"Given the changes we want to take place and the pace that I wanted to see things move forward, we needed to make a change there," the mayor said.

Shaw said he met with Becker on Monday morning and found out that the mayor wanted "to go a different direction" and that he was being relieved of his duties.

"I'm a little surprised," Shaw said, "but the mayor has the right to have the horse he wants to ride to the pasture. He needs to make sure that it's going the direction he wants."

The reorganization also calls for the creation of a One-Stop-Shop Buzz Center, designed to provide more efficient and convenient service by allowing residents to address all of their planning and zoning needs in one place. The Buzz Center will replace the city's Planner of the Day program, which Becker said was found to be largely ineffective as a one-stop planning/zoning program.

Other changes include the addition of an ordinance review and resolution work group, as well as a long-range planning and complex projects work group; and a simplified organizational chart to expedite planning decisions.

Becker said the reorganization will ensure better customer service for residents and help the planning division return to a focus on long-range planning and appropriate ordinance revisions.

"We've had a planning function that has almost been under siege," he said. "The confidence in the community that works with planning has fallen."

That lack of confidence has led to everyday planning decisions being challenged by residents, property owners and developers, Becker said.

"That puts an increased burden on our planning and building services function because there's so much time being spent responding to decisions that are being made," he said.

Becker said he recognized the need for a thorough review of the planning department's functions and assessment of its effectiveness before he took office in January. An internal review found that the city had committed, hard-working employees, he said, but also "fundamental process problems with how the city deals with planning, zoning and permits."

"We're trying to regain the confidence of the public in this function of city government and to put into place a combination of the organization, the customer-service orientation and the personnel to allow the (planning division) to really function well," Becker said.

Shaw said he believes many of the problems with the planning department were occurring long before he took office.

"I didn't create that situation," he said. "I tried to make it better."

As an at-will employee serving at the behest of the mayor, Shaw said he knew when he took the job that it could be a short-term assignment. He hoped, however, that wouldn't be the case.

"I was hoping to finish my career there," Shaw said. "I love Salt Lake City and the planners I worked with there. They're good people. My greatest regret is that I'm not going to have that association. I'm going to miss those good people."

Shaw said he's considering his career options, with hopes of landing another planning job elsewhere.

"This wasn't something I was anticipating to be doing today," he said. "But I'll land on my feet."

Becker has appointed a leadership team to lead the department during a reorganization period. The team includes Mary De La Mare-Schaefer, interim community and economic development director; Esther Hunter, senior adviser to the mayor; Orion Goff, building services and licensing director; and Lyn Creswell, chief administrative officer. The leadership team also will oversee zoning.

"Our No. 1 goal is to be more responsive to our customer," De La Mare-Schaefer said.

The mayor calls the reorganization a "critical first step toward aligning the planning work with the priorities" set out in his 180-Day Action Plan and the "blueprints" for Salt Lake City unveiled during his mayoral run.


E-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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