Less than two years after taking over the Department of Planning and Development, Director Carol Barrett submitted her resignation late last week to take a planning job in the city of San Marcos, Texas, her home state.
Barrett’s resignation takes effect June 6. City Manager Weldon Rucker said he is considering the formation of a three-person transition team to manage the department until either an acting director or new permanent director is named.
Barrett is the third planning director to abruptly leave the city in the last five years. Director Gil Kelley resigned in 1998. Liz Epstein accepted the job, immediately went out on maternity leave, and then resigned suddenly when she was due to return to work.
Rucker said he’s been troubled by the high turnover in city planning staff including the string of departing directors. He said one goal of the transition team will be to assess planning procedures and suggest ways to stabilize the department.
“The planning department is where you have very tough, intense discussions about land use and planning policies,” Rucker said. “Some of those leaving the department have said that they don’t think there has been universal support, including from my office and the commissions.”
Barrett is leaving a department that has been the focal point of controversy as pressure to develop housing meets with resistance from vocal neighborhood organizations concerned that too many tall, densely designed buildings — typical of recently approved projects — will change the city’s character.
Among the reasons Barrett cited for her departure was difficulty working with the Planning Commission. The nine-member commission oversees and develops planning policy and makes recommendations on zoning ordinance amendments.
Members fight among themselves, and the commission often clashes with planning department staff over competing visions of the city’s future.
Barrett said she appreciated her time in Berkeley but added that too many people believe the planning director’s job is to prevent any development.
“I think public planning anywhere is a challenge. If it was not challenging, I would not have made the move out here at all,” Barrett said. “But I became a city planner because that’s what I really enjoy doing, and one of the reasons I’m resigning is because I don’t necessarily agree with the direction the elected leaders of the Planning Commission are going.”
The two commission-elected officials on the Planning Commission are Chair Zelda Bronstein and Vice Chair Gene Poschman.
Bronstein did not return calls to the Daily Planet regarding Barrett’s departure, but Poschman scoffed at the ability of the chair and vice chair to dominate the commission’s agenda.
“Anybody can put anything on the commission’s agenda at any time,” Poschman said. “It would be very difficult for two people to take the commission off in their own direction.”
Poschman said he didn’t doubt Barrett had a difficult relationship with the commission but attributed it to a “natural conflict between staff and commissioners that arises from different roles and different values.”
Poschman added that the job as planning director in San Marcos sounded like a good opportunity for Barrett. “It sounds like an excellent job that’s close to her family,” he said.
Barrett starts her new job on June 9. San Marcos is about a 30-minute drive from Austin, where Barrett worked for 10 years before accepting her post in Berkeley 19 months ago.
Barrett bought a home in the Bay Area in the last six months; her husband, however, never left Austin and one of her two sons currently works there. Her other son is a junior at UC Berkeley.
One commissioner described Barrett’s relationship with Chair Bronstein as particularly bad.
Commissioner Susan Wengraf said Barrett was treated with very little respect by the commission’s leadership. She said Bronstein, as the commission’s chair, would not meet with Barrett to iron out differences.
“If certain commissioners had a different agenda than the director, they should have met with her to work those issues out,” Wengraf said. “It seemed to me that Director Barrett was trying very hard under adverse conditions. She was understaffed and working against a hostile commission.”
Commissioner Rob Wrenn said Bronstein was a model commissioner.
“I’ve never observed Zelda Bronstein do anything inappropriate at meetings,” he said. “In fact, what I’ve seen is that she has been a very effective chair.”
Barrett said she’s grateful to the city manager for the opportunity to work in Berkeley. She said she was proud of getting the city’s general plan adopted as well as the award the city recently received from the American Planning Association for its infill development.