City Departments May Be Reorganized

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

City Hall may face a major reorganization in the new year, with the creation of a new city department and the disappearance of an old one.

City Manager Grant Brimhall has proposed forming a Neighborhood Enhancement Department that would combine code-enforcement duties from five city departments under one roof. Included in the new department's responsibilities: building and housing issues and perhaps even parking tickets.

One department, Building and Safety, would be merged entirely into the new entity.

Building and Safety's director, Barry Branagan, was relieved of his duties Thursday. In a memo obtained by The Times, Branagan told his staff that he had been ordered to vacate the premises until Jan. 2, when he would return to City Hall as an employee "in another capacity."

It is unclear whether Branagan's removal is tied to the creation of the new department. Branagan's memo gave no reason for his removal, and he could not be reached for comment Friday. Brimhall declined to comment.

Earlier in the week, Brimhall said that creating the new department would increase coordination among city workers whose duties already overlap.

For Thousand Oaks residents, better coordination could mean faster response to complaints about poorly maintained buildings, blighted properties or debris-filled yards, Brimhall said. Homeowners interested in adding on a room could get their permits faster. Businesses seeking construction permits would, it is hoped, face shorter waits.

"What we're trying to do is enhance our ability to serve the public," he said. "It would be a major commitment on the part of the city of saying, 'This is important to us, code enforcement is important.' "

But the possible change has some worried that consolidating so many functions in one place might diminish service.

"You cannot have all of these major responsibilities under one department head and have efficiency," City Councilwoman Elois Zeanah said. "You have to have them broken down, or they'll get lost."

Brimhall first outlined his idea to the council in October as part of his overview of the city budget. Although council members will consider the idea during budget discussions in January, Brimhall said the final decision on the proposal will be his.

As currently conceived, the new department would be assembled from pieces of others. The Planning Department's code compliance division, with four workers, would become part of Neighborhood Enhancement. So would the housing program within the city manager's office.

All personnel now assigned to Building and Safety would be included in the new department. Brimhall said the changes would not lead to layoffs.

Those workers would report to a new department head who, if the proposal goes forward, would probably be hired from outside the city's ranks, Brimhall said earlier this week. At the time, he said Branagan, director since May 1988, would probably be reassigned, although Brimhall said exact details had not been decided.

On Monday, Branagan said that Brimhall had informed him of the plan before proposing it to the council in October. Branagan said that he would consult with council members on the plan if asked, but that so far, his input had not been sought.

"They're going to have a new department, with a new department head, with my department in it, and I don't have much input," Branagan said.

Branagan's memo to employees Thursday did not mention the new department. Instead, he praised his staff's skills and wrote, "For the most part I have worked myself out of a job because I have given you the tools to act independently with limited supervision and you have succeeded."

Earlier in the week, he declined to give his opinion of how well the reorganization would work.

Planning Director Phil Gatch said he could see possible benefits and drawbacks to the plan.

"You gain certain things, and you lose certain things," he said. "I would say that the efficiency is a real positive. The direct relationship between the planning staff and code compliance will be lost to some degree. So these are the equations."

Since the new department would simply rearrange existing city offices, the costs of building it would be minor, Brimhall said. Creating the new director's position would cost an additional $28,000, he said, since the city could use money already set aside for a code compliance position that is vacant.

Zeanah said that though the city has had problems enforcing its codes on such issues as property maintenance, merging those functions into a new "super mega-department" would not help. Instead, the city needs more enforcement personnel and a greater commitment to following through on citizen complaints, she said.

"Because there have been problems, it needs to be emphasized, not thrown into this big mix."

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