There is a story that has been floating around the city’s Planning and Development Department for some time.
One day, the department hired an eager young planner fresh out of college. He spent his first day at work getting acquainted with his colleagues and learning about the issues of the day.
He was so excited about his new job that, on his own time, he decided to attend that night’s meeting of the Zoning Adjustments Board.
He was never heard from again.
If the young man ever really existed, his name and the date of his employment have been long forgotten. Carol Barrett, the director of planning and development, thinks the story is “probably apocryphal.”
It persists nonetheless, and it may be enjoying something of a resurgence lately. In the last few months, four members of the planning staff have either moved on to jobs elsewhere or announced their intention to retire. At the same time, the department has been trying for months – unsuccessfully – to fill an open position for an entry-level planning position.
“For the last eight years, this has been a fairly consistent theme in the Berkeley Planning Department,” said Mark Rhoades, director of current planning.
Planners are charged with interpreting the city’s building and zoning codes as they apply to proposed projects. They also help the Planning Commission draft new policies – such as the General Plan – and enforce building regulations.
Usually, they have advanced degrees in urban design or urban planning before they begin their career, and they must be conversant in a number of different fields – law, architecture, and design, among others.
Barrett, a planner with a national reputation who came to Berkeley from Austin, Texas only four months ago, has inherited a department verging on chaos because of understaffing.
On Wednesday, she said that a good deal of the problem was due to an adversarial relationship that local commissions – the ZAB, the Planning Commission, the Design Review Committee and the Landmarks Preservation Commission – and local citizens have with the department.
On top of this, according to Rhoades, the city doesn’t pay its staff a competitive salary.
“From what we’ve seen in other cities’ help-wanted ads, Berkeley seems to be on the low end of the planning pay scale,” he said.
Currently, the cities of Dublin and Livermore are also looking for entry-level, “assistant” planners. They are offering $600 and $1,100 per month more than Berkeley, respectively.
Barrett said that the disparity severely limits the city’s ability to recruit new planners.
“If the salaries aren’t up there, people won’t even apply for the job,” she said.
Rhoades said that in addition to being paid less, Berkeley planners are expected to do more. They must master a building and zoning code much more complex than those of other cities, and work in a much more politically charged atmosphere.
Rhoades said he recently asked some of his senior staff members how long it takes an experienced planner to learn the details of Berkeley’s code. The consensus was that it would take a year.
“It doesn’t take half that long in other cities,” he said. “The expectations for new planners are very high, compared to other jurisdictions.”
But perhaps more importantly, Barrett said, staff members are forced to work in a “confrontational” political environment. Commissioners and citizens tend to very publicly accuse staff of bias or incompetence, she said – when, in fact, the department is one of the most competent she has worked with.
“The salary issue is important, but if there are intrinsic rewards for doing a job, people will stay,” she said. “Unfortunately, we are more often viewed as obstacles to achieving what citizens think of as appropriate public policy.”
She said that many members of local commissions seem to think that staff members have a hidden agenda, or a bias in favor of developers – a “completely unfair” opinion that they do not hesitate to make public at meetings.
“Planners fully expect to work with boards and commissions, but they also expect respect,” she said. “We hire very talented, competent professionals who expect that the role they’ll be playing is one of collaboration with boards and commissions.”
Instead, she said, frustration and disrespect drive planners out of the city.
Given the low rate of pay and the difficulty of the work, the net effect is that Berkeley operates as a sort of “boot camp” for Bay Area planners, with people gaining a great deal of valuable experience here then moving on to more rewarding – or better compensated – jobs.
“People from other cities have told me, ‘If you can work in Berkeley, you can work anywhere,’” Barrett said.
Carrie Olson, who has served on all four planning-related city commissions in the past two years, yesterday allowed that “perhaps we all need to go to mediation.”
She maintained, though, that the process was bound to be messier in Berkeley than in other cities, given the intensely democratic nature of the city’s development process.
“Commissioners don’t get along with each other a lot of the time,” she said. “There’s a lot of snapping that goes on. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
However, she said, she values very highly the knowledge that planners, as professionals, bring to the table.
“I’ve always maintained a very friendly relationship with the Planning Department, because I need them,” she said. “We all, as citizens, need them.”
“It shouldn’t be a contentious process, it should be a collaborative process.”
Jeri Ram, director of the Northern California chapter of the American Planning Association, said on Wednesday that she was not surprised that Berkeley was having a hard time filling its staff.
“It’s hard to find planners generally now,” she said. “It’s a seller’s market.”
Ram said that Berkeley’s reputation in the planning community was not necessarily a good one, for many of the reasons cited by Barrett.
“I’ve heard that a lot of people don’t want to work in Berkeley because it’s very difficult,” she said. “I’ve heard that citizens spit on you, and I’ve heard that it’s very difficult to get anything done.”
“If you’re not paying people well, and if they’re not getting good feedback from people they’re working with, they look for a job somewhere else. There are just tons of jobs available in California right now.”
Barrett said, though, that she was confident that a few simple, personal changes could make a big difference.
“The city is under a number of financial challenges, so it’s more difficult to address the salary issue,” Barrett said. “But the issue of how we treat each other can be addressed overnight.”
Rhoades said that the chronic shortages of staff made no sense in a city like Berkeley, which is famed for its history, culture and intellectual capital.
“Berkeley deserves to have the best and brightest people working here,” he said.