Mayor Ralph Becker says he has spent a significant portion of his first six months in office attempting to steer Salt Lake City's planning division out of its several-years decline into dysfunction.
"It's occupied more of my time than maybe all other functions of city government combined," Becker said.
The mayor and other city officials met Friday afternoon with representatives from the Greater Avenues Community Council to discuss concerns over the perceived inconsistency and lack of transparency in the city's planning and land-use decisions.
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.
The Greater Avenues council members contend that isn't happening quickly enough, and they are considering a vote of no confidence in the city's planning and building services divisions, as well as the city attorney's office.
"A number of us have been hopeful to see some changes," Wayne Green, community council chairman, told Becker. "We're just a little perplexed."
Becker reiterated his commitment to fixing procedural problems with planning and zoning in the city, and he cited the hiring of Frank Gray as director of community and economic development as a step in that direction.
"We're addressing this as quickly as possible," the mayor said.
Several personnel changes have been made in the planning division under Becker's watch, including the firing of planning director George Shaw on March 3. A nationwide search is under way for a replacement.
The division also has been reorganized to streamline the planning process and expedite decisions, he said.
"The changes are taking effect, and we're seeing a lot of positive things," Becker said. "In some cases, it's substantially slower than I would have ever expected."
Other changes have been made or are in the works since Gray was hired June 10 that the new department head says will address the types of concerns expressed by the Greater Avenues Community Council.
Interpretations of zoning ordinances are now being made by a four-person committee rather than by just one individual, he said.
To help with that interpretation, city officials will be going over zoning ordinances and working with the Salt Lake City Council to add statements of intent.
Most cities in the U.S. include in their zoning ordinances intent statements, Gray said, helping those left to interpret the law in the future to understand the reasons they were enacted by elected officials.
Developing intent statements is "a big issue," Gray said, and it likely will take nine months to a year to complete.
The city also is following recommendations of an April audit that labeled the planning division "dysfunctional."
Despite having what Green called a "productive meeting" with the mayor, the Greater Avenues Community Council hasn't ruled out a vote of no confidence at its Aug. 6 meeting. The action would serve as a formal complaint to the city.
Not all Avenues residents share the community council's concerns. Saying he represented the "silent majority" of the community at the City Hall meeting, Ed Rogers chastised what he dubbed a "cliquish community council" for wasting the mayor's time.
"I think you've done an outstanding job," Rogers told the mayor. "I think these people owe you an apology."
Green said the concerns raised by the community council and a possible vote of no confidence are not directed at the mayor."(The vote) is against the planning process, building services and the city attorney," he said. "We're not out to lynch anybody. Most of us supported the mayor in his campaign, and we still think very highly of the mayor."
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