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Zucker Report Released Despite Staff Apprehension

From the Austin Monitor:

After months of speculation, the City of Austin posted the draft Zucker Report on its website Thursday night.

Last year, Zucker Systems performed an analysis of the Planning and Development Review Department, and while they did find “many exemplary features” within the department, a quick glance makes it clear why the city was less than eager to release the findings without some revision. The report is available, in its entirety, here.

It contains 464 recommendations and “opportunities for improvement.” Of those, 121 are considered high priority. The report recommends the city immediately fund $3.5 million in improvements for the department.

The report also includes input from customers, conducted via a survey. According to Zucker Systems, “The negative responses we received in this survey are the worst we have seen in our national studies including many Texas communities.”

According to the report, of the 20 questions posed about the Planning and Development Review Department, five received negative reviews more than 25 percent of the time, which indicates signs of concern. Thirteen of the questions exceeded 50 percent. In fact, 82 percent of respondents felt that the city’s development review and plan check processes were unnecessarily cumbersome or complex, and 81 percent of customers felt that if the processing of a project was delayed, it was not typically justifiable and could occur over minor issues.

For comparison, the report notes that the company has worked in communities where the negative responses “seldom exceeded 15 percent.”

The same was true of the employee survey. According to the report, “These are the worst scores we have ever recorded in our various studies. Because the negative scores are so extensive, they do not lend themselves to a division-by-division or question-by-question analysis. The scores are consistent with what we heard from employees in the eight employee meetings. Employees are very unhappy about the direction and leadership in the Department.”

The Zucker Report also addressed stakeholder perceptions through a city-approved process. Once again, the news was bad. The stakeholder report is a long list of complaints, which include complaints about One Texas Center (“bizarre, like the Soviet Union”), the fact that there are three plumbing departments, claims that there is undue influence from developers and statements that the Land Development Code is hard to understand. The list of complaints is 64 pages long.

But the meat of the report is its analysis of the department and its various divisions. One by one, Zucker Systems takes a look at: Building Inspection; Commercial Plan Review; Comprehensive Planning; Current Planning/CodeNEXT; Development Assistance Center; Land Use Review; Permit Center; Residential Plan Review; Site and Subdivision Inspection; Support Services; Accounting, Budget and Fiscal Surety; Technology; and Boards and Commissions.

Neighborhood advocates and the media first requested a copy of the draft report months ago. Eventually, the city released a heavily redacted version of the 700-plus-page report and asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for a ruling on the right to withhold information.

Thursday night, the report was posted online. Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards explained why in a memo at the time of its release. She wrote, “To ensure there is no further speculation about what has been provided, the information received from Zucker thus far will be released in its current form. While I disagree with releasing draft versions of consultant information without proper vetting, it’s important for me to make it clear that this entire process was done with the utmost professionalism and integrity.”

Edwards goes on to explain that, since the draft was completed in early December, staff has been reviewing the information to ensure that “basic characterizations of departmental functions were accurate” and meeting with stakeholders. Edwards estimates that the final draft report will be available in late March.

Obviously, with only a couple of hours to review the Zucker Report, the Austin Monitor was unable to dive into all of the several hundred pages of analysis. The report is substantive, with detailed information about each division. The edits, too, bear further scrutiny. Though some are trivial, changing titles or locations, others have an argumentative tone.

In the section on the city’s Permit Center, for example, an observation that wait times were, at a maximum, two hours and 21 minutes long was changed to read that the wait time for customers is 42 minutes.

Marginalia on those changes read, in part, “(Permit Program Supervisor Cande) Coward is a fairly recently appointed manager and still believes her job is to come to the counter and help staff when they are backed up, which is all the time. She needs to manage! A little victim mentality going on here. (Permit Review Specialist Zulema) Flores does the same thing, helping at the counter rather than real supervision. I’ll need to look closer at this. I’ve basically just tried to shed as much work as possible from this group.”

The online version of the report was preceded by a disclaimer, which read, in part: “Overall, it is staff’s opinion that releasing any consultant’s information prematurely and without proper vetting will distract from the analysis. In no way does the City ever seek to influence the analysis, opinion or findings of hired consultants … While some have referred to the information in question as a ‘draft,’ it’s important to note that the consultant has only provided working chapters for staff to review. Below you will find the original working chapters that have been provided thus far, which include commentary from both staff and the consultant. The consultant is still in the process of providing staff with working chapters.”

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