“My short period of time here was met with much internal resistance, and often, a very hostile place to come to work.”Consultant Sylvia Carrillo-Trevino
A 2019 report authored by consultant Sylvia Carrillo-Trevino while under contract with the City of Odessa offers a detailed and candid review of the lack of customer service from city staff. Email chains obtained by Odessa Headlines show the report was delivered to former City Manager Michael Marrero and Assistant City Manager Phillip Urrutia on August 19, 2019 but seems to have never been provided to City Council nor were many of the suggested actions undertaken by City staff.
According to the report and records obtained by Odessa Headlines, Trevino spent approximately 120 days observing city operations at a cost of almost $37,0000. While the report focuses on problems within the planning, zoning, and building inspection departments it also offers important insights into the overall culture inside city hall and provides detailed advice on how to address shortcomings within several key city departments.
Entitled “Development Process Overview” the nineteen page report focused on key problems within the City’s Planning & Zoning, and Building & Inspection departments and suggests that “Instead of playing ‘gotcha’ with the customers, let’s develop the attitude of partners helping one another along the development sequence. Good development starts with a good attitude on both sides; partners not adversaries.”
“When I ran for City Council one of the areas I promised to focus on was the continual problems that were being reported with the Planning and Inspection Department.” stated Odessa City Council At Large Denise Swanner during an interview with Odessa Headlines. “As I campaigned I heard time and again how difficult the City was when you wanted to build a new property or improve an existing property. I had many conversations with builders, developers, remodeling contractors, and property owners who were frustrated with the process of permitting and inspection and they were begging for change.”
The report notes that “Development is the economic engine of a city. It must have the ability to run as a well-oiled machine that delivers consistently, timely, and with a good customer service attitude. This is a paradigm that must come from the elected officials and the City Manager. It must be consistently delivered at every opportunity, and when issues of poor customer service arise, they are dealt with swiftly and seriously.”
“Shortly after I was elected in 2020, I attempted to broker an open and honest conversation between Odessa’s builder and developer communities and City staff. Many builders and contractors were invited but only two showed up to face a group of eight or nine City staff – including City Manager Marrero – who spent most of the hour and half long meeting describing what a great job they were doing. I didn’t know anything about Syliva’s report at that time but mind you my meeting took place just about six months after this report was apparently delivered. When I read that report it exactly mirrors the problems that had been described to me and it is very frustrating to me that few, if any, of her suggestions were being implemented.” said Swanner.
When asked why she wasn’t able to get more builders to attend the meeting, Swanner responded with one word: “Retaliation – I believe that most builders, contractors and developers were very afraid to rock the boat. They believed that if they were honest about the problems they were facing that City staff would take it out on them and they would have even more problems getting their projects done.”
A number of key suggestions were included in the final report:
- The creation of a Development Advisory Group which could vet ideas or proposed changes, and act as an ombudsman to both the development and construction community, as well as the general public to notify of pending or needed changes to city codes or processes.
- To utilize the City’s public information officer to develop public information pieces that are distributed and discussed and thoroughly vetted prior to the presentation to the City Council.
- Streamlining the process for handling changes in the field due to unforeseen circumstances which invariably arise during the development process and considering changes as a partnership opportunity instead of an adversarial process.
- Developing a series of easy-to-follow checklists so that builders, developers, and city staff know what is expected and can easily evaluate their work for compliance.
- Speeding up the process of permit approval and inspections. Also noted was a need to provide time windows when an inspector would be onsite to complete an inspection as well as performing complete inspections on each visit instead of stopping once an infraction was discovered. The report noted that inspectors need to be cross trained to perform multiple inspections during their site visits.
- The report advocates for the use of third party inspectors instead of exclusively relying on city staff to complete inspections.
“In the current environment, the customer is left to fend for themselves and navigate the development maze.”Consultant Sylvia Carrillo-Trevino
Throughout, the report advocates for a partnership approach with developers, builders, and property owners. Instead of seeming to fight with citizens, the report states that city staff needs to be trained to be collaborative in assisting customers in meeting the city’s requirements.
“The report is dead on when it concludes that we, as the City, must focus on the “Why” of what we do. It correctly states that if we make the process too cumbersome then people are just going to build in other places where it’s easier to build.” stated Swanner. “Back two years ago this was what drove me to want to improve our process. I want Odessa to grow. I want to make it easy to do business here. I want our citizens to know that we hear them, we care about their problems, and we’re here to help, not hinder. With the changes being made in our city administration I am more than confident that we’ll finally be able to make the changes we’ve needed for so long.”
When asked about her next steps Swanner stated “I am currently working on having a meeting with local builders, developers, and contractors to hear about their grievances. Unlike my prior attempt, I will be managing this meeting and who attends, and no City staff will be invited to attend. I want this meeting to be a productive exchange of experiences and ideas in a very open, non-threatening forum and then I hope to be able to take my findings to City staff and begin the work needed to make Odessa’s building process the easiest, most streamlined and efficient process it can be. I really want to make it pleasant for people to do business with our city as I believe this will give us a huge competitive advantage over other cities.”