A Culture of Service

To his credit, First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal’s website outlines ambitious goals for customer (that’s you) service by County government employees:

“Initiate implementation of a comprehensive customer service program and culture within County government. This initiative will expand the depth and breadth of current customer service programs to make the value of customer service part of all aspects of daily County operations. A system of regular monitoring and feedback will also be included.”

This issue of a “culture” of service is critical to a democratic planning process, as a proposed County ethics course confirms: “This training program…will address the more practical issue of how to transform governmental agencies to become more successful in the (sic) regulatory affairs while maintaining popular support. Given the importance of regulatory regimes, policy and management professionals need to understand how to make effective regulatory policy and maintain citizenry support.”

To a large extent, the impact of this view can also be seen in John Baker’s memo last month to the County Board Of Supervisors, in which the director of Planning & Development said that “Customer Service Relations” was one of “three broad focus areas for improvement,” and we couldn’t agree more.

In fact, the entire County Board of Supervisors has given Mr. Baker a supporting vote for most of his reform agenda and we think the people of Montecito should support County planners in their “goal of making the process easier to navigate, more time efficient and cost effective while maintaining the quality of development within the county.”

Near the end of the Board of Supervisors meeting of March 13, Supervisor Brooks Firestone mentioned his interest in creating an independent office of Ombudsman to help applicants navigate the complex planning process. Voices of Montecito has made this same recommendation to County diplomat Michael Cooney with respect to planning reform in Montecito. Such an office could help educate, facilitate, reduce tension and problem-solve in a way that would ensure that the vision of customer service espoused by Baker and the Board of Supervisors would flourish. It would also serve as Carbajal’s “system of regular monitoring and feedback.”

Already, equilibrium and openness have re-surfaced in the Montecito planning process. Having an Ombudsman available to resolve problems and facilitate consensus makes perfect sense, and I think County government is ready to take this step, especially if it receives the kind of public support it deserves.

Decisions, Decisions

A Montecito Journal report two weeks ago on the Hurst appeal, “MPC Gives Hurst House the Go-ahead,” made it sound as though Voices of Montecito supported Hank Hurst's actual building plans. To be clear, we 1) thought that a simple up or down vote and allowing the process to take its natural course was a better solution than having nine meetings at which no consensus is reached, and 2) that guidelines are there to guide. If an applicant can't rely on them, how are they to make effective and successful use of the planning process?

And this raises the most fundamental question about our planning process. We establish reasonably clear objective criteria (guidelines) for approving development: The Montecito Land Use & Development Code. The Montecito Community Plan, on the other hand, has criteria that are completely subjective, whose interpretation is wholly within the mind of the individual reading it. What exactly does “compatibility” mean? “Appropriate” landscaping? Site planning, size, mass, scale?

The successful application of these policies depends entirely upon the people selected as our Montecito Board of Architectural Review members and Planning Commissioners. So shouldn’t we have the right to review how these decisions are made on our behalf?

And herein lies the problem. Are the people making these subjective judgments representative of the majority view of the Montecito community? What redress do we have if a meaningful segment of the community loses faith in someone’s judgment? Why are planners, who are not chosen by the community, asked by the MBAR and MPC to weigh in on subjective issues? (which is the very thing we have asked the commissioners themselves to do?) Right now commissioners serve until they retire. Can people become too entrenched, too powerful? Maybe, like state government, we should have some form of term limits.

These are difficult and controversial questions. As it now stands, Supervisor Carbajal chooses our commissioners, presumably with some input from the community at large. Voices of Montecito supports the Community Plan but thinks we need to understand how subjective judgment affects its implementation, and make sure that all of our voices are heard in the ensuing discussion.