Thursday, November 29, 2001
For a man who is caught in a losing fight, Scott Hennessy seems pleasant and serene. His office, brand new and mathematically neat, is in the back of what used to be a military intelligence detachment at Fort Ord. This summer, the building was converted into an outpost of the county planning department. Hennessy, the director of that department, sits in his enclave at the end of a back hallway, sipping hot tea.
When he talks about his bicycle commute from his home in Monterey, it''s clear that the ride gives him joy. But Hennessy has a serious problem. His department, which is swamped with building project applications, is running with a skeleton crew. The planning department is missing 43 staffers from a roster of 123.
He says he''s been trying to fill the spots by running ads in trade journals and on the Web, but no one will come. It''s just too expensive here.
"It''s a really ironic situation," he says. "We have a housing shortage in Monterey County, and we can''t hire the people to help us solve this problem because of the cost of housing."
All those unfilled positions mean Hennessy has about a million dollars in unpaid wages in his budget. It also means there are a few people who are upset with the planning department, because it''s taking too long for their construction projects to be reviewed.
As Hennessy sat in his office last week, a newspaper story was on the street claiming his department was doing something illegal. An article in The Carmel Pine Cone quoted attorney Tony Lombardo, as well as several unnamed "prominent" Monterey County lawyers, saying that the planning department''s focus on restrictions is "unfair," that the "county doesn''t do enough to retain qualified planning staff," and that the resulting delays were a violation of the state''s Permit Streamlining Act. The article did not mention Lombardo''s close relationship with the planning department prior to Hennessy''s arrival--during which time Lombardo''s law firm authored "planning department" documents on county letterhead--which resulted in a court order that revised the county''s rules.
And Hennessy is not quoted in the article. Nevertheless, he says that in response to the attorneys'' complaints, the department has changed the way it does things by making permit applications available without requiring a meeting with a staff planner.
Hennessy is an environmental biologist by training, and he''s been the department head less than a year. Prior to taking the job with the county, he was the director of the CSUMB Watershed Institute. He was also a board member of a self-described "smart growth" group called Common Ground. And he did a stint as president of the Ventana chapter of the Sierra Club.
His appointment to the county office sparked an article by this newspaper ("Hennessy, Straight Up", Jan. 4, 2001) calling into question his credentials as an environmentalist. He replied by saying he''s an "environmental scientist."
But now Hennessy''s a de facto crisis manager. Rather than do actual planning, he spends half his days appeasing and assuaging. Angry landowners whose projects don''t move fast enough call the county supervisors, who in turn call him.
"That''s not planning. That''s dealing with the crisis of operation," he says.
But he can''t do much with empty desks. He''s short planners, building inspectors, grading inspectors, plan check engineers, land use technicians and clerks. (Besides benefits, a building inspector is paid $2,800 a month. An assistant planner makes $3,000 a month, an associate planner makes $3,500 and a senior planner makes $3,900 a month.)
"We have workstations that are waiting for people," he says.
As of Wednesday, the city of Monterey has only one open slot in its 19-person planning department. Seaside is down two positions out of six. Chip Rerig, acting chief of Carmel''s planning department, says he has two open positions out of a staff of five.
Usually a planner handles 30 projects at a time. With a short roster, each runs about 60 to 80 projects at a time, according to Hennessy. A robust local economy keeps the pace fast.
"The volume in the last few years has been astounding," Hennessy says. "We just have a huge backlog and it creates an unbearable load for everybody. But we''ve got to accept it. We''ve got to do it."
Although the county offers excellent benefits, the pay doesn''t match what can be found in the private sector. It''s painfully clear to Hennessy.
Oftentimes he''ll set up the interview, which requires a panel of three staffers, only to have the applicant abscond. Maybe they see the pay advertised on the county Web site and then do the math.
One recent candidate looked promising and was a Peninsula native to boot. She was sick of living in the Bay Area. But her job at a telecommunications company was paying her $60,000 a year fresh out of college.
"She was making $20,000 a year more than I could pay her," Hennessy says. She too is not working for the county planning department.