O.C. officials order revamp of agency

The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to create a task force that will oversee an overhaul of the planning department, after a major audit last month determined the department was in "critical condition."

The 117-page review of the Planning and Development Services Department found that customer service was nearly nonexistent, and required safety and environmental inspections were not being performed.

"Significant structural and operational change is needed if planning is to remain operationally viable or to begin to provide a quality level of customer service," Steve Danley, the county's performance audit director, told the board.

Supervisors Patricia Bates and Bill Campbell sought the audit after complaints from residents and developers. The task force will ensure that each issue raised in the audit is addressed, and there will be monthly updates to the board.

"For us to sit around and study, study, study that is not the goal here," said Bates, who said that this was the fifth major review of the department. "It's to get a conclusion and a better model so that you are served in a timely and more cost-effective manner. And most importantly, so you get to realize your dreams."

Bates said nothing was off the table -- including closing down the department and contracting its functions to cities.

According to the report, the department's troubles began in 2002, when it went into the red by $8 million and had to borrow from the general fund. As more county areas were annexed by cities or became new cities, the number of people using department services fell by about 43%. The faltering economy also has caused workloads to drop dramatically.

Since 2002, the staff has fallen from 204 people to 39. Employees became more focused on salvaging their jobs and billable work rather than customer service, the audit states.

Bryan Speegle, the agency director, did not dispute the findings in his 15-page response. He was not available for comment Tuesday.

Half a dozen residents spoke at the meeting, expressing frustration and disillusionment with the system.

Robert Walters said he spent more than $40,000 over the last 10 years trying to get a grading permit for his Silverado Canyon home, even battling cancer in between his battles with the department. "I'm mad as hell, and I'm sick of it," he told supervisors.

"They've been padding their time and stealing my money. To me that's absolute extortion and fraud. . . . I'm 70 years old, I live on Social Security, and they're sucking me dry. I just want them to give me my permits and leave me alone."



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