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San Fran Considers Contracting Out Environmental Review of Development Projects

Leonard Gilroy
September 9, 2009, 4:01pm

As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, city officials are considering hiring outside contractors to handle environmental reviews in order to accelerate development projects:

The proposal, apparently the brainchild of Mayor Gavin Newsom's administration, immediately drew fire as a dangerous move that could threaten union jobs, remove important checks and balances and open the city up to legal liability if it has to defend environmental reviews that are both conducted and overseen by private, development-friendly companies.

Supporters said the proposal, if adopted, would simply speed up a painstakingly long process and would free planning staff members to work on public projects while the contractors work with some private developers.

Currently, staff members in the major environmental analysis, or MEA, division of the Planning Department oversee the environmental reviews required for development projects. The studies, conducted by a consultant hired by the developer, are reviewed by city staff to ensure they are complete and accurate. The entire process can take months or more than a year.

But according to a draft request for bids obtained by The Chronicle, the city is considering initiating a $750,000 a year, three-year pilot program - a joint effort between the Planning Department and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development - that would reduce how long it takes developers to receive decisions on projects. The program would initially focus on transportation planning review but could evolve to include larger projects, the document states. It also would allow the consultant to continue working on environmental reviews for private and public entities in the city, so long as they don't review their own work.

Director of Planning John Rahaim said the department is looking into all of its potential pitfalls before deciding whether to move forward. The proposal would not lead to layoffs of city workers, he said, adding that most other communities in California do not have an in-house environmental review division.

Rahaim said the consultant would only be used on an "as-needed basis" to help the city staff during peak times - when many projects are being reviewed at once - and noted that there are a number of large public projects in the pipeline. He said it would not cost the city anything extra because project sponsors would have to pay their normal fee plus an extra fee for the private consultant. [...]

Opponents said the proposal would remove important checks and balances and threaten union jobs, and noted that development is stalled because of the recession. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi called the idea "creeping privatization that undermines accountability and will eventually make the MEA seem less necessary."

There are several points to make on this:

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Reason Foundation's Privatization Research and Commentary

Leonard Gilroy is Senior Managing Director, Pension Integrity Project &
Director of Government Reform

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