The special election to replace Bob Filner is in its final stretch – but the City Council on Monday might quietly usher in a much bigger shakeup to city government as a whole.

The item facing the Council would re-establish planning as a standalone department, completing what’s been a foregone conclusion since Filner hired big deal-urban planner Bill Fulton this summer while also remaking the city’s overall bureaucratic structure.

The planning department was consolidated into development services in early 2011, in a cost-cutting move by former Mayor Jerry Sanders that saved about $1 million annually.

In a broad sense, the city’s planning department is in charge of drawing up long-range blueprints for where and in what way the city is supposed to grow: weighing how each community is supposed to look and feel, and determining what public investments they lack. Development services handles the day-to-day transactions between developers and the city, approving permits and reviewing plans to make sure they’re consistent with those long-term visions.

Basically: Planning makes the plans, and development services implements them. Since 2011, the plan-makers have been working under the plan-implementers. The Council can change that Monday.

But the Council’s actions wouldn’t just re-establish planning as its own thing.

The biggest part of the reorganization might be the reintroduction of three deputy chief operating officers, each in charge of a different group of city functions — infrastructure and public works, neighborhood services and internal operations. Reworking the city’s current framework to fit within those three groups would mean reorganizing much of the city government. The item facing the Council would also authorize bringing in a consultant to identify more ways to bolster efficiency within the city.

In justifying the need for changes, Scott Chadwick, the city’s assistant chief operating officer who will become the COO on Oct. 30 after Walt Ekard, current COO, leaves the job, offered a stunning admission of the city’s problems, which he said was a result of the reduction of senior management positions made in the 2009 budget-cutting moves.

“The end result was a reactive organization lacking proper oversight to ensure that taxpayer dollars were being appropriately and effectively managed,” he wrote, in a memo detailing the organizational changes the Council’s face with.

The new organizational structure would cost $992,135 more than what’s in the 2014 fiscal budget, and would be paid for through various one-time revenue sources. The costs will need to be accounted for in the normal budgeting process in the next fiscal year, and the city’s independent budget analyst (IBA) said in its report it’s reasonable to assume the needed money will be there. Most of the changes would go into effect basically right away, beginning in November of this year.

Here’s how the city’s current organization chart looks right now.


The big change coming to that structure is the three new deputy COO positions, each overseeing a different group of government functions.

Here’s how that looks:


All kinds of things the city does are getting moved around in this transition.

Let’s focus specifically on the rebirth of a standalone planning department

Here’s how those functions are currently organized:


There’s development services — the department that approves new projects — and it oversees both planning and code compliance, which makes sure properties are clean, safe and in accordance with the city’s municipal code.

Here’s how those functions will look after the change:


One of the new deputy COOs will oversee “neighborhood services.” That’ll include stuff like Park and Recreation, libraries, arts and culture and the gang commission, as well as the newly separated planning and development services departments.

In addition to no longer being part of development services, the planning department — now called Planning, Neighborhoods and Economic Development and run by Fulton (and a new assistant planning director) — will also be in charge of the city’s economic development department, and the civic and urban initiatives department, a creation dreamed up by Filner to solve city problems.

The economic development function will also be in charge of overseeing Civic San Diego, the city’s revamped redevelopment agency, as it tries to finish up redevelopment projects that were approved before the state ended the program.

The new planning department will have a total operating budget of $24.3 million and include more than 118 full-time employees. That’s the size of the current functions, plus two new positions, one for Fulton, and one for an assistant director for the department.

In addition to long-range planning and economic development, it’ll also function as “the policy wheelhouse for all environmental policy in the city,” according to a memo detailing the reorganization. That means it’ll handle issues related to the California Environmental Quality Act, historic resources management and species conservation.

The IBA report on the reorganization also put forward a few suggestions to make it less expensive, in case the Council balks at the full price tag when combined with unbudgeted costs like the upcoming special mayoral election.

In its report, the IBA says it strongly agrees with the need to reintroduce deputy COOs to strengthen city leadership. The IBA even suggests adding another support position for the deputy in charge of public works, to help with asset management, “a key component of our infrastructure program,” its report reads.

The IBA also says it supports a standalone planning department  because “planning and permitting functions differ, and the larger permitting function has, to some extent, overshadowed the planning function.”

One result of that overshadowing, according to the IBA, is that community plans and public-facilities financing plans have fallen significantly out of date.

“Updating Community Plans and (PFFPs) is important since, among other things, they identify needed public infrastructure and community priorities,” the report reads.

It also says the new planning department is the right place to focus on economic development and sustainability.

The separation will “refocus the city’s commitment to the public goals of visionary, long-range land-use planning (plan ‘making’) from the goals of land development (plan ‘implementation’) which are often in conflict,” the report reads.

The IBA doesn’t have as many nice things to say about the civic and urban initiatives program, which is now being called the “Civic Innovation Lab.”

“We agree that implementing creative, innovative initiatives in San Diego communities could be a valuable addition to the city’s services. However, given financial constraints and competing priorities,” it recommends cutting its staffing from four full-time employees to just two — even though the group is already scaling back from its initially budgeted six positions.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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