Bottlenecks and backbiting

Grand Jury looking into continuing problems in county Building Department

FORCED OUT The director of the troubled Butte County Development Services Department, Yvonne Christopher, has her defenders, but the man shown here, Craig Sanders, a senior planner fired after 23 years, isn’t one of them. “Anybody who questioned a course of action internally was targeted,” he said. Sanders’ grievance against the county, one of several resulting from Christopher’s actions, is in arbitration.

FORCED OUT The director of the troubled Butte County Development Services Department, Yvonne Christopher, has her defenders, but the man shown here, Craig Sanders, a senior planner fired after 23 years, isn’t one of them. “Anybody who questioned a course of action internally was targeted,” he said. Sanders’ grievance against the county, one of several resulting from Christopher’s actions, is in arbitration.

Photo By Tom Angel

According to a number of sources, the current Butte County Grand Jury is taking an especially hard look this year at the Department of Development Services and its director, Yvonne Christopher.

The department, which includes the Building and Planning divisions, has a number of problems, some of which Christopher inherited when she took the job in 2002, others that she’s brought on herself, critics say.

Wait time—how long it takes builders to get their plans checked and permitted—has been a problem for years. People in the construction industry are “pulling out their hair,” as one builder put it, at their inability to get timely service.

The industry, which does most of its work in the dry season, is an extremely complex one in which many factors must come together, from the weather and supplies to work crews and permits, and lag time in securing a permit can set back the process terribly. It’s impossible to measure the cost of these delays, but in a county that has more than 150 construction companies and is in the midst of a building boom, it can be many millions of dollars—not to mention limitless frustration on the part of builders.

More than two years after Christopher’s hiring, many in the industry believe the problem has gotten worse, not better. In what they charitably say has been an effort to modernize and get rid of the “good old boys,” Christopher has made life uncomfortable for a number of the most experienced plan checkers and site inspectors, forcing out some and convincing others to take early retirement.

“Truth is, it’s gotten worse since she got in there,” said Steve Orsillo, an Oroville builder. “I’ve been waiting 12 years for Butte County to have a boom, and now that it’s here I can’t take advantage of it. The county is my biggest enemy.” Many builders are simply “going to the cities,” he said.

Rick Clements, a partner in the company PoolBuilders, charges that it can take weeks just to get a swimming pool permit, a process that he used to do right at the counter.

The vacated positions haven’t been refilled, either. Of the 24 positions in the Building Division, only 12 are currently filled. Four employees are on medical or administrative leave, and eight positions are open.

“This lady has totally annihilated the machinery that was there,” Jim Purcell, who has a construction engineering company in Oroville, said. “We were sure wrong to be complaining about what we had.”

As a result of the understaffing, the county has been forced to outsource plan checking to two big private engineering firms, Pleasanton-based LP2A and Anaheim-based Willdan Associates. Last October, the Board of Supervisors authorized up to $300,000 to go to Willdan, a company for which Christopher worked as a building inspector in 1990-91.

Everybody in county administration laments the pitiful permitting process, but CAO Paul McIntosh insists Christopher is turning around a department whose efficiency, as limited as it was before, was based on cronyism, not good practices. “She inherited a mess,” he said, “and it’s difficult to replace people.” She’s in the process of interviewing right now, he added.

But others say the problems in the past weren’t because of personnel, but rather weak leadership. By and large, they said, the plan checkers and site inspectors were competent. A builder could come in with plans, and if the checker knew the company’s reputation, he could eyeball the drawings at the counter and, if they were complete, stamp them and move them along in the process.

This kind of independence and autonomy is now gone, critics say. In Christopher’s rigid, top-down model, the emphasis is on regulation, not helping people.

Craig Sanders, a senior planner (and former Chico planning commissioner) whom Christopher fired after 23 years on the job, says the notion that the employees are in public service “has just seemed to go away. … I don’t know how many times I heard her say, ‘You’re a regulator.'”

Others objected to her “draconian” (Sanders’ word) imposition of a zero-tolerance gift policy. That was one of the reasons Dave Wasney Jr. quit after 25 years as a plan checker. For 18 years he’d participated in an annual pheasant hunting trip with lifelong family friends, some of whom were builders. When he requested permission to attend, it was denied.

Sanders relates a similar story. A fellow planning commissioner who appreciated his help gave him a gift certificate for Christmas. When Christopher found out, he says, she charged him with insubordination.

Wasney said Christopher simply didn’t want anybody there who knew more than she did, so she forced out all the veterans.

Christopher responds that, when she was hired, the Board of Supervisors gave her a directive to do three things: create a higher level of accountability, treat all customers equally and implement state codes and county regulations consistently. Everything she has done has been to that end, she insists.

Contrary to accusations that she has imposed a rigid, top-down model, she says, she’s instituted a “team model,” forming the department’s employees into teams and empowering them to make improvements themselves.

But she has interpreted the demand for consistency in strict ways, she added. “It’s true that we no longer allow the kind of autonomy that allows people to do whatever they want.”

She refused to respond to Wasney’s and Sanders’ charges regarding the gift policy, citing personnel confidentiality, but she noted that “there are two sides to every story, as you know.” It’s important for employees to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, she added.

She acknowledged, however, that she had no proof that any county employee was giving special treatment to clients.

The problems with the permitting process aren’t with plan checking, she said. With Willdan’s help, that process has gotten faster. But other agencies have to check off on a project, including Environmental Health and the Fire Department, and with the county so short-staffed, each is a “bottleneck.”

In addition, a recent court decision now requires that the county check the legality of every lot before it can be developed. This too takes time.

John Starr, owner of Better Builders, one of the bigger construction companies in Oroville, says he thinks the situation is improving under Christopher. She’s added a help desk in the front office that really works, Willdan is doing a pretty good job on plan checking, and the department’s Web site is much improved, now offering builders the ability to track their applications online. He said his last two projects took two months each to get approved—"a huge improvement,” though far from ideal. (Other cities and counties in the area do it in as little as two weeks.)

“She’s trying, she’s honestly trying to make it better,” Starr said.

Kate Leyden, executive director of Valley Contractors Exchange, agrees. Building, already a terribly complex business, is getting even more complex, she said. It’s booming, more and more applications are being filed, and planning departments all over the state are working with skeleton crews. Plus “the easy land is gone, so now they’re building on lava cap, drainage is bad or there are endangered species.” All that takes more time.

On Dec. 10, Leyden noted, Christopher put on another hat, that of the county building official, and in that capacity she has started changing the way things are done, including setting up roundtable meetings with local builders to solicit their suggestions. But problems remain. For example, inspectors no longer give courtesy calls alerting that they’re about to make a site visit, a tremendous inconvenience to builders, who have to be prepared to wait all day. The reason: The county hasn’t provided them with cell phones.