City Pursues Improved Community Development Service

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach presented its game plan Tuesday for how it will improve customer service at its Community Development service counter, including hiring a new customer service supervisor and closing at 4 p.m. two days a week on a temporary basis to allow staff members to train and respond to calls and emails by the end of the work day.

The service counter is a resource for the public to ask city staffers questions about planning, zoning, and building issues. However, community members have complained about the lack of information on the city’s website and rules that require seemingly minor building changes to be reviewed by the Design Review Board.

“We’ve been working on this for a while now. We talked to residents, architects, and counter customers to develop our list of proposed service improvements. We are excited to begin implementing them,” Greg Pfost, director of community development, wrote in a statement.

City administrators initially considered closing the service counter at 4 p.m. every work day but council members Steve Dicterow and Toni Iseman said this was too much of a hardship for people who have to leave work early from other cities to get to City Hall. Instead, Pfost said he and Jim Pechous, assistant director for community development, would return to the City Council in June with a plan to close early on two days that typically see fewer walk-ins.

Dicterow also raised the question of whether the service counter should continue to be closed on alternating Fridays.

City Manager John Pietig said when Laguna Beach instituted this schedule, 30 of 34 cities in Orange County followed a similar regimen. He was concerned that cutting this day off could invite some staff to jump ship to other cities.

“That argument is only an argument to say we’re not otherwise competitive,” Dicterow said. “It’s really not an argument that it’s a better service to the public and our primary priority should be to provide a better service to the public.”

One alternative to this was to have half the Community Department staff come in on alternating Fridays to at least answer basic questions. Pietig said he was open to discussing the calendar change with city staffers and coming back to the City Council in June.

“The issue is really finding time for the staff to meet,” he said. “So if there is not council support to close at 4 p.m. every day, maybe we try two days a week.”

Besides these proposed schedule changes, city staffers are working on streamlining aspects of the building approval process. These tweaks include allowing staff approval of new air conditioning units rather than sending them for approval by the Design Review Board, reducing the time required to install poles illustrating the mass of a future building to 14 days, and create a waiver process for minor coastal development permits.

Laguna Beach will also improve its website by removing outdated information  and making forms more easily accessible. It will spend $30,000 on informative videos for the websites that will explain various aspects of the city’s planning, zoning, and building regulations. The hope is that architects and homeowners will watch these videos for answers to their questions rather than showing up at the service counter.

To make sure all of these customer service projects happen efficiently and on schedule, the City Council will consider spending $115,000 on salary and benefits for a customer service supervisor and $108,000 for a planning technician as part of its upcoming two-year budget.


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