Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Transition talk...

No punches are being pulled in a soon-to-be-released report from County Executive Ken Ulman’s transition team about the planning and housing departments. The Sun has the scoop:

The document recommends broad changes and urges a "top-down analysis" of both departments.

A subcommittee of the transition team prepared the report for newly installed County Executive Ken Ulman. It is scheduled to be delivered to Ulman Friday morning.

…The report says that the Department of Planning and Zoning is "chronically under-staffed ... to keep up with the demand and the changing needs of Howard County" and that its leadership is stretched too thin.

The report's harshest criticisms relate to sagging public faith in both departments.

Planning and Zoning, the report says, "lacks trust, accountability and transparency with the community."

The report uses similar language for the Department of Housing and Community Development, claiming there is an absence of "trust" and "lack of transparency and accountability" with the public.

It also says the department has failed to establish "strong communication with [the] community and business sector."

Although the language is strong, it is not unwarranted. All of these statements are true and evident to even casual observers, particularly those regarding trust and accountability, which are at the core of a lot of public criticism and griping recently (think charrette).

These are interesting and important matters, of course, but they aren’t new. What is new is this:
But the report also notes that the Department of Planning and Zoning has failed to receive sufficient "direction and guidance ... from top county leadership."

The subcommittee member said that Marsha S. McLaughlin, the planning director, "acknowledged to the subcommittee that for the past eight years she operated without specific goals, objectives and directions from the third floor."
This is very different from how you would hear some people say it. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people have the impression that the politicos – in concert with nefarious partners -- are pulling the helpless bureaucracy’s strings. The truth, however, appears to be quite different, but is no less in need of changing.

In general, this report signals a need for direction. The local bureaucracy has inertly creaked along for the last decade, drifting in whatever direction circumstances dictated while problems like outdated and understaffed planning programs and affordable housing shortages mounted. This report – and the election that preceded it – represents a shift from a passive government to an active one, something I think most residents (at least the plugged in ones) support. Whether they will support the actual policies that result from a more active government remains to be seen.

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