Suggestions for Improving City Government in Gainesville Florida

By Dom Nozzi

March 20, 2006

In the Spring of 2006, the Gainesville City Manager held meetings with city staff to gather comments about city government and answer questions from staff. I asked if there was a way for employees to submit suggestions for improving how city government operates, since employees such as myself had worked here for almost 20 years and therefore have accumulated some ideas about how to improve government operations. Russ Blackburn, the City Manager holding these meetings, responded by saying I should email him my suggestions.

Because I did not feel comfortable emailing him my suggestions without first submitting them to my city department director, I submitted my suggestions to the director first. The director apparently did not like my suggestions, since he never gave me approval for sending them to the manager. I do not know what he did with the suggestions. My speculation is that the director discarded the suggestions instead of sending them to the manager.

These were my suggestions:

I appreciate your generously offering to have me send along to you my modest, humble ideas for what I believe the City of Gainesville should consider as ways to improve customer service, improve employee morale, and promote equity.

  • An employee “parking cash-out” parking program.

As you may know, employees who drive a car to work benefit from a tax-free subsidy: Free parking. Donald Shoup points out that this provides an employee with a powerful incentive to drive a car to work alone.

Parking cash-out offers employees an equitable choice: Instead of only offering a subsidy to those who drive to work (and nothing to those who walk, bicycle, carpool or use transit), cash-out introduces fairness. The employee is given a choice: continue to drive to work and park for free, or have your employer give you a modest increase in salary to compensate for not using a parking space if you do not drive to work alone.

Studies throughout the nation show that cash-out is an extremely effective way to encourage employees to walk, bicycle, use transit, or carpool to work.

  • Follow the lead of local governments throughout the nation by putting our land development code on-line (and maintained on-line by the City).

I know that our code is on municode.com, but it tends to get very little use because the municode website makes it VERY difficult to navigate through the code. Having an accessible, easy-to-use code on the City website would dramatically increase use of an on-line code. Staff workload would decrease because citizens/developers would frequently have their questions answered by the website rather than having to contact staff. Citizens/developers would therefore get their questions answered quicker, and staff would have more time to complete work assignments. Staff would additionally benefit because a City-maintained on-line code would enable staff to more quickly find the answers to questions THEY have about information in the code (instead of the time-consuming effort of paging through a hard-copy of the code, or asking other planners for help). By embedding hyperlinks within the on-line code, the user could quickly be taken to a definition/drawing of jargon that is used in the code. The City could also put a zoning map on-line that is search-able at the parcel level, thereby reducing the frequency of the common question from a property owner: “What is the zoning of my property?” Finally, because there is a time lag between amendments to the code and when municode.com places them on-line, the on-line version often does not contain the latest version of the code. If the code were maintained by the City, this problem would be eliminated.

  • Establish a public relations/ombudsman office.

The City formerly had such an office. The City of Boulder, where I worked in 1996-97, had such an office. I had observed in Boulder that the office is enormously useful in providing citizens/developers with easy-to-understand information and assistance. The image of the City is improved because professionals are employed to evaluate and calibrate City actions that are known to be citizen- and media-friendly. In Boulder, the Planning Department hired a full-time media professional who ensured that all the maps, reports and letters produced by the City staff were easy to understand by citizens. To this day, I retain a vast awareness of her lessons even though I only worked with her for a few months.

  • Use the City website to list staff email addresses and list which staff are assigned to various development projects in the city.

Doing so is enormously helpful to citizens seeking information about a project they are interested in. It would dramatically reduce the frequency of citizens getting a frustrating “run around” within the complex city government. And to more easily contact a staff person they know by name.

  • Similarly, City Commission agendas should list the staff member assigned to the agenda item (and who will be giving the presentation).

Boulder did this, and it was very helpful for citizens (and commissioners and plan board members).

  • Consider holding a pre-commission meeting status report and strategy session with staff who will be presenting at the upcoming commission meeting.

Doing so ensures that the city manager, department heads, and staff making the presentations are fully aware of what the presentation will consist of, and what background information should be known about the issue before the presentation. In Boulder, this often allowed the manager to suggest revisions/additions/subtractions to the proposed presentation, and often gave the staff presenter up-to-the-minute information about the item. The result was that “surprises” were minimized at commission meetings, and staff presentations were dramatically improved and focused on the essential points to be made (and “singing from the same songbook”).

  • Provide a buffet dinner for evening plan board and commission meetings available to both board/commission members and staff needing to attend the meeting.

This technique is used in Boulder, and is particularly appreciated by staff. Here in Gainesville, I find that on a night I must attend a meeting, I often don’t have time for dinner before a night meeting, and often end up not eating dinner until I get home at 10 or 11 pm. To improve employee morale, it should be assumed that employees have a life, and are respected. This is one important way to do that.

  • Consider offering employees the option of a 4/10 work week (4 10-hr days).

I agree that it would probably not be wise to close city government on Friday, as you informed us when you pointed out that a “Friday closed” approach was being tried by another Florida community. However, if only a portion of employees work 4/10s and sufficient coverage is provided on the day that an employee is off, the program can actually increase coverage because the 4/10 employees would be providing customer service before 8 am and/or after 5 pm.

  • Consider hiring a consultant (if not feasible in-house) to shrink the enormous size of the City Land Development Code.

The code also needs to be made more user-friendly by minimizing jargon and maximizing the use of “Plain English.” Too often, even staff find it time-consuming to wade through our large code, and are frequently confused about its jargon-laden (and graphics-poor) style. If staff has trouble with it, citizens/developers must often have a terrible time with it.

  • Consider purchasing “petition-tracking” software and placing a much larger percentage of city documents (such as planned developments) in an electronic form.

Such computerization can dramatically reduce the time needed to track down information, and minimize the number of times that essential information is missed.

  • Give staff time off to pursue advanced degrees at the University of Florida.

The cost of such time off for such training and degree certification (a form of continuing education) to city staff would be far outweighed by the benefits of having more highly trained staff.

Thank you for your time,

Dom

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s