New report highly critical of Clark County permitting process

While improvements have been made, much work remains according to an outside report

VANCOUVER — Frustrations with Clark County’s permitting process for new development led the council last year to hire an outside consulting firm at a cost of more than $84,000, to examine the problems and come up with possible solutions.

Wednesday morning, Citygate Associates presented that 142-page report at a council work session.

Gridlock for permits in Clark County leads to new report offering 36 recommendations for improvement.
Click to open PDF.

Bill Cook, with Citygate, says they interviewed 40 employees, and received survey responses from 70 others. He said while there were compliments about positive changes happening in the department, it’s clear a lot more needs to be done.

“The emotions are running high, which I’m also seeing as a positive,” Cook told members of the County Council, “because it means that change is possible. There’s a desire for change, and we’re hoping that will remain positive.”

Among the top employee complaints were too little recognition of good work, and a lack of proper training practices. Citygate’s conclusion was that the lack of training has led to a high turnover rate, making it difficult to retain people who have a good grasp of policies and procedures for permitting. They recommended hiring someone specifically to assist in training new employees in the Permit Center.

County Chair Marc Boldt pointed out that knowledge of the county’s codes and permitting practices were not all that’s required.

“We can have a great, trained person down there who has no customer service,” he pointed out, “So that doesn’t help us, that’s why we’re getting the calls. So how do you put the two together? We’ve gone through servant leadership, we do all this other stuff, and we still hear all these comments.”

The response from Community Development Director Martin Snell?

“I need to make sure the supervisor and manager are dealing with that issue,” Snell told the council, “and either working on softening those skills, or looking at other work assignments that they could be tasked to do where those rough edges aren’t exposed to the customer that they’re dealing with.”

Many of the issues Citygate identified in the report seemed to point to a lack of leadership, and trust issues.

“There is a lack of trust,” Cook told the council, “and it seems to be in every dimension of those that we interviewed.”

Much of the blame in the report for that lack of trust and direction came back to the county’s ongoing transition to Home Rule charter, and the long-running search for a permanent county manager. It would generally be their job to oversee implementation of any changes recommended in the report.

That leadership void also led to numerous complaints of developers going to members of the council when their permits were delayed.

“We  can bypass  the Permit Center  by going to the Building  Official or County Council,” one developer told Citygate, “We do not like to do this but at times it is necessary.”

Permit Center staff also complained about the end-around, with some saying the council member’s use as a “hammer” by some developers left employees reluctant to make a decision.

Fourth District Councilor Eileen Quiring took exception to that point of view.

“I think it sounds a little bit too much of an excuse, about trust,” she said. “Personally, we have constituents that we have to answer to. I’ve never gone down and asked somebody to do something that’s not … I’ve just asked ‘what is going on.’ And the normal response is, ‘the customer is wrong.'”

She did clarify that sometimes the answer is informative, and explains a genuine need for a delay in a permit or project. Her recommendation, which found support from the rest of the council, was to find a way for each permit to be handled by one staff member from start to finish.

“That would make for a better process,” Quiring said, “because it seems like when person No. 2 gets a hold of it, perhaps they feel like they need to be doing something, and so they find more issues at hand, and different than the first person had told them.”

The Citygate report included 36 recommendations, with 13 of those labeled “immediate need,’’ to be completed in the next six months. One of those included a Listening Tour for council and members of the Permitting Department.

“I’ve listened enough,” responded Boldt to that idea. “Unless we have some concrete action, people are not going to talk. They’re going to say, ‘a listening tour? Nothing’s happening’ … if we’re going to continue this dialogue somebody needs to see something.”

A major barrier to that, aside from the lack of a permanent county manager, are ongoing issues with a system for permit filing and tracking. Many employee complaints centered around the technology they, and developers, deal with on a daily basis.

“The  new LMS [Land  Management Software] system  is not functional and transparent,” read one complaint, “There are lag times and lack of permissions.”

“The  website  is not user-friendly,” another said, “Usability  of LMS for the older generation is difficult.”

One recommendation in the report included hiring someone to track data, to make sure fixes are being implemented and that improvements are being seen, but Snell admitted the data is currently unavailable.

“Currently the county would not have access to all of the data — the data warehouse if you will — so that analysis can be done,” said Snell, “That’s being requested, and we’re suggesting that that’s an absolute need.”

“A lot of good recommendations in this report,” agreed Councilor John Blom, “but if we can’t be tracking the results, we’re not going to know if it’s working.”

The complaints listed in the report also indicated the county’s permitting delays and costs could be sending developers elsewhere.  

“Other jurisdictions are 10 times faster than Clark County,” read one complaint. “This adds costs to the projects.”  Another said developing in Clark County cost up to 15 percent more than other nearby areas, due to the amount of red tape. Currently there isn’t any clear process in place to even provide feedback.

“One of the suggestions that came from the development community was they want a forum,” says Cook, “some way to give feedback immediately. And that is recommended to be included.”

“People should never need to come back four or five times,” one employee told Citygate, “which happens all the time.”

Others said long wait times forced them to sometimes accept incomplete applications, leading to issues further down the line. The report recommended a checklist, with one person responsible for making sure things are updated.

The report also recommended changes to the design layout of the Permit Center offices. Snell pointed out that the current layout has few safety considerations.

“When you’re in the permit center and you’re facing the reception area, it’s open,” he said. “So if you wanted to … strangle the person you’ve been dealing with, you could run back into that work area and get to them.”

That comment prompted Councilor Julie Olson to quip: “Don’t let it get to the point where they want to strangle you!”

Citygate Associates also recommended that they be brought back in six months to check on the progress of these improvements, and that the council give the incoming County Manager extra leeway as they get up to speed.

To assist in that, the report recommended a temporary hiring for the next 12-18 months to assist with implementing the changes outlined in the report. No firm date was set to vote on implementing the recommendations.

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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