The easy question was whether Menlo Park needs more planning staff. The consensus was yes, given the number of incoming projects at least 35 expected during the next five years. The hard question was how to fulfill that need.
City management and council found themselves at odds late Tuesday night (Feb. 12) over whether nearly doubling the number of full-time planning employees would be the smart solution.
In the end, the council supported a strategy that could add a mix of permanent, provisional and/or contract employees to tackle the increasing planning department workload.
Apart from some business representatives with projects in the pipeline, including Facebook, members of the public who commented agreed that adding so many permanent employees would be the wrong move.
"I'm concerned about long-term commitments and learning from recent hard lessons," said Henry Riggs, planning commissioner and pension-cost watchdog. "Are we making long-term commitments for cyclical needs?"
He pointed out that for now, the actual unfunded pension liability the city has incurred thanks to lower-than-expected returns on investments made by CalPERS, the state's public employee retirement system, remains unknown until the agency updates its debt information in about 12 months. Later, council members echoed that concern.
City Manager Alex McIntyre, along with other senior staff, argued that contract employees could result in lower-quality work, given that the workers would know less about the intricacies of some local projects, and may be less consistent in applying the city's regulations.
Menlo Park contracts out a lot of work, he said, including plan checking, environmental reviews and maintenance. "Where a service can be clearly articulated and scoped, and where judgment is not necessarily exercised in a great way, that's an easy project to contract."
While he said he couldn't conclude that contracting out would fail, Mr. McIntyre added, "I can control the product and get a higher level of return with a full-time employee."
Provisional -- also known as limited-term employees -- receive full benefits, unlike contract employees. The planning department currently has two provisional staffers, whose contracts end in June.
Developer Steve Pierce of Greenheart Land Company agreed that full-time staff offers advantages. His company plans to build on the Derry Lane site, "which is very dependent on the history that goes along with the specific plan, which includes all the intricacies of CEQA approval." He thought a contract employee couldn't "jump into that and really be efficient."
The council questioned those conclusions. Based on her own experience with contract employees, Councilwoman Cat Carlton said she took issue with the notion that they do lower-quality work, and noted that they provide a track record of other projects that the city can evaluate to make sure they have the necessary experience.
Colleague Kirsten Keith commented she was surprised that the city manager didn't really flesh out the alternatives to hiring full-time staff. She talked to an agency that provides staff for the city of Petaluma, she said, and was told that contract staff work out well in public positions because they want to maintain a good reputation for future work.
Saying that he liked the idea of provisional employees, Councilman Rich Cline noted that some non-building projects, such as updating residential development guidelines, will get "political and nasty," and therefore shouldn't be contracted out.
Mayor Peter Ohtaki suggested a "hybrid model" of potentially two full-time employees, and four to five provisional staff. Although the council differed on whether to go with provisional versus contractual employees, the idea of blending the types caught on.
"I am not ideologically opposed to hiring full-time employees when they are going to be full-time employees," said Vice Mayor Ray Mueller. "... (I)n this case we would be hiring full-time employees for a level of development that's not sustainable." He favored looking for a contract agency.
A 5-0 vote gave the city manager authority to decide how to spend $300,000 on a combination of two additional provisional employees, improving City Hall office space to accommodate more people, and possibly extending the service of the planning department's two current provisional employees.
Staff will also start preparing a request for proposals to find contract employees, hopefully before the fiscal year ends in June, and return to the council with a hybrid plan for review. The plan could include a mix of full-time, provisional and/or contract employees.