City considers consolidating Planning, Design Commissions
In an effort to create greater efficiency and cut costs by more than $25,000 per year, the city will soon consolidate its Planning Commission and Design Commission into one planning/design oversight board.
Members of the Planning Commission heard the latest update Thursday on progress toward consolidating the two commissions. Members did not take any action on the report.
The City Council started looking at the city’s organizational structure in April 2010 after consultants from Management Partners Inc. suggested that city operations could be more efficient – and general fund money could be saved – if some boards and commissions were either eliminated or consolidated.
Two of the bodies that appeared to be ripe for consolidation were the Planning and Design commissions, according to Greg Bitter, principal planner for the city.
While the Planning Commission is in place to review the zoning, parking, site location and other planning-related aspects of proposed projects in the city, the Design Commission reviews the more technical structural, design and aesthetic aspects.
Some members of the commissions have said that consolidating the two bodies would dilute the individual strengths of each commission and valuable facets of review would be lost – but staff feels that can be avoided if the consolidation is handled right.
“The cost savings is expected to be at least $25,000 per year,” Bitter said Thursday, “just from the savings of setup, administration and staff time that two regular meetings require as opposed to one.”
Beyond that, Bitter said there are cost savings from staff time associated with a variety of projects that each commission undertakes each year.
Because the costs vary from project to project, Bitter said he could not give an estimate of the potential savings, other than to say it would be “above and beyond the meetings savings.”
City staff evaluated the workload, staffing and function of both commissions for the period of January 2007 – when the Design Commission became a standalone body – through September 2011.
According to a staff report, the Design Commission workload has dropped since 2007 with only three projects heard in 2010 and only five heard so far in 2011.
Compared to an average of 15 per year between 2007 and 2009 – that’s a 66 percent drop in workload.
Also, because items are often heard at both the Design and Planning commissions, Bitter said there is an overlap that can be reduced by merging both commissions.
Michael Notestine, a member of the Planning Commission since 1987, said Thursday that he supports the idea of bringing the two commissions together, but he sees potential for unintended consequences.
“Right now it makes sense (to consolidate) because business is so slow,” Notestine said, “but what happens when the economy turns? There may be enough activity to warrant separating again. How much trouble will that be?”
Planning Commissioner William Wong said Thursday he is concerned that the functional integrity of each commission might be affected by a combination.
“The work of each commission is different, and the philosophy of each is a little different,” Wong said. “If they were to combine it, you’d have to figure out how to make sure (the new commission) retained the technical expertise of the design aspect and still have the community emphasis of the planning aspect.”
According to Notestine, the ultimate success of a newly formed Planning/Design Commission will depend largely on its composition.
“If there is a formula for a certain number of technical positions on the new commission, then that diminishes the number of public positions,” Notestine said. “As it stands now, planning is oriented toward community needs. We listen to the public, and we learn from the public.”
The current Planning Commission consists of 11 members: eight appointed by City Council members, one appointed by the mayor and two appointed by the Personnel and Public Employees Committee.
The new commission is proposed to have a total of 13 members, which includes nine members selected by council members and four members with specific expertise selected by the Personnel and Public Employees committee.
City staff stated in their report that they felt concerns regarding consolidation could be resolved in the way the ordinance is drafted.
Planning Commission chairman Joe Yee said Wednesday he has complete confidence in city staff’s ability to prepare an adequate ordinance to resolve any issues.
“When you get down to the details (of the city code),” Yee said, “it’s good to have people who have been working with the system and see the pluses and minuses in all of it.”
Once the new commission is formed, it will take on the combined workload of both previous commissions already in progress, along with any new projects.
After the City Attorney’s Office writes the necessary amendments to the city code, a draft ordinance will go to the Law and Legislation Committee for approval and then to the City Council.
Bitter said an ordinance could be at the City Council in January or February.
Melissa Corker is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCorker.