Mayor Ralph Becker's campaign promises to restore transparency and accountability to Salt Lake City's long-troubled planning division aren't being fulfilled quickly enough for one group of residents.
Tonight, the Greater Avenues Community Council will discuss a possible vote of no confidence in Salt Lake City's planning and building services divisions, as well as the city attorney's office.
The community council criticizes the city in its July newsletter to residents, saying planning and land-use decisions are becoming "less and less public." It also accuses city employees of making "back-room and one-sided interpretations of the law."
Wayne Green, chairman of the Greater Avenues Community Council, said residents expected to see more progress in the planning division in Becker's first six months in office.
"We were hopeful with the new administration, with Mayor Becker being a (professional) planner, that we would start to see some changes," Green said. "Basically, after six months, things are still going like they have been in the past."
Becker promised during his campaign to retool the planning division to address residents' frustrations over customer service and planning procedures, and to restore the public's confidence in the division.
An audit of the city's land-use and permitting processes presented to the City Council in April detailed the planning division's decade-long descent into dysfunction.
"The city's customers are for the most part not very satisfied," the report stated. "A message needs to be sent to the development-related customers and stakeholders, in no uncertain terms, that the status quo is not acceptable."
Shane Carlson, Greater Avenues Community Council board member, said Becker has not sent that message.
"We really feel that many things have not improved," said Carlson, who also serves as chairman of the community council's housing compatibility committee. "We feel like (the Becker administration has) been given enough opportunity to understand the problems, and the response has been inadequate."
David Everitt, Becker's chief of staff, cited several changes implemented by the mayor in an effort to improve the planning process.
"I think the key thing to realize here is this thing is 15 to 20 years in the making or the unmaking," Everitt said. "To expect a drastic turnaround (in six months), I don't know if that's realistic. I firmly believe we're making positive changes."
A crucial improvement, Everitt said, was the hiring of Frank Gray in June as the city's director of community and economic development.
Becker also has reorganized the planning division to streamline the process, including the creation of the "One-Stop-Shop Buzz Center" to allow customers to address all of their planning and zoning needs in one place.
Other changes have included the addition of an ordinance review and resolution work group, as well as a long-range planning and complex projects work group. A simplified organizational chart also has been implemented to expedite planning decisions.
Carlson calls improvements to the process "a step in the right direction," but it doesn't get to the fundamental problem, he said.
"You can change the levels of accountability, but if there's still no transparency, it doesn't do any good," he said.
Carlson contends that most of the problems stem from inconsistency in the planning division when it comes to the application and interpretation of ordinances.
Too often property owners are incorrectly being granted over-the-counter building permits without going though the proper public process, he said.
"We can't let things continue the way they're going," Carlson said. "We'd love to work with (the city), but things have moved in the wrong direction."
A vote of no confidence by the Greater Avenues Community Council would carry with it no enforceable action. Essentially, it would serve as a formal complaint to the city in an effort to get the mayor's attention.
Tonight's community council meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 at the Corinne and Jack Sweet Branch Library, 455 F St. The discussion about a vote of no confidence is the final item on the agenda with an approximate time of 8 p.m.
If the community council decides to proceed with a vote of no confidence, it would happen at its Aug. 6 meeting.Becker is out of town and could not be reached for comment.
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