Two agencies criticized

Ulman due transition report that says planning, housing departments lack direction

January 31, 2007|by sun reporter

Two departments, both of which are at the heart of some of the most contentious issues facing the county, have lost the public's confidence and lack accountability, according to a report to be released this week.

It accuses the Department of Planning and Zoning and the Department of Housing and Community Development of operating without well-defined strategies.

The document recommends broad changes and urges a "top-down analysis" of both departments.

A subcommittee of the transition team prepared the report for newly installed County Executive Ken Ulman. It is scheduled to be delivered to Ulman Friday morning.

In one of his first acts after being elected in November, Ulman last month fired Leonard S. Vaughan, who headed the housing agency for 15 years, and his top assistant, Neil Gaffney.

The report says that the Department of Planning and Zoning is "chronically under-staffed ... to keep up with the demand and the changing needs of Howard County" and that its leadership is stretched too thin.

The report's harshest criticisms relate to sagging public faith in both departments.

Planning and Zoning, the report says, "lacks trust, accountability and transparency with the community." The 24-member subcommittee recommends that the position of ombudsman be created within the department.

Although an ombudsman might assist in improving public confidence, that is not the thrust for suggesting the position, said a member of the subcommittee who declined to be identified because the report has not been made public.

"The main thing is that the development process is difficult for the citizens to understand," he said. "The process seems impenetrable. The thinking was that this would explain the rules and regulations and show them the rules that need to be connected."

Trust an issue

The report uses similar language for the Department of Housing and Community Development, claiming there is an absence of "trust" and "lack of transparency and accountability" with the public.

It also says the department has failed to establish "strong communication with [the] community and business sector."

Both departments have been targets of criticism, particularly in the past three years, as they have coped with such thorny issues as where development should occur, its compatibility with existing residential neighborhoods, density and how to provide housing for moderate- and low-income families.

But the report also notes that the Department of Planning and Zoning has failed to receive sufficient "direction and guidance ... from top county leadership."

The subcommittee member said that Marsha S. McLaughlin, the planning director, "acknowledged to the subcommittee that for the past eight years she operated without specific goals, objectives and directions from the third floor."

Criticism of growth and development reached its peak with last year's so-called "Comp Lite" rezoning legislation. That process was invoked not by the planning department but by the County Council, which included Ulman.

The report states there is "substantial expertise in the leadership and staff," but that the department lacks the resources to meet the demands placed on it.

Nonetheless, the report says there is inadequate communication and consistency in policies between the Planning and Zoning and other departments.

It recommends, among other things, that the department's efforts be focused on redevelopment, particularly in areas such as the U.S. 1 corridor, U.S. 40 and downtown Columbia.

"The county is at a level of maturity that places new and increasing demands on county employees," the report says. "With new and progressive leadership from elected officials, Howard County has the opportunity to grow the department into a first-class leader in urban design, housing and transportation."

The subcommittee also proposed changes within the Department of Housing and Community Development.

The department's "mission is one that the community supports in principle, but often opposes in implementation," the report says. "Transparency and communication with citizens are essential to maintain trust in the department."

Nowhere has the divide between principle and implementation been more obvious than in the department's efforts to provide more affordable housing to citizens.

There is an acknowledged need for more moderate- and low-income housing, and county policy requires builders in most cases to include that segment in their developments.

`Devoid' of goals

But with only rare exceptions, the department has been buffeted by criticism from residents opposed to moderate-income developments in their neighborhoods.

The report, however, says that the department "seems to function devoid of specific goals or strategies," and notes "dramatic competing interests exist with regards to providing affordable housing."

The subcommittee says, "There is no office or anyone to specifically think about the `Big Picture' or the whole issue on housing."

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