Whether it’s just stubborn perception or opinion rooted in some reality, the city of Galveston’s building department has long been maligned as an obstructionist bureaucracy.
So, it’s welcome news that the department plans to undertake a series of changes to improve a permitting process that developers and architects say is poorly communicated and executed.
Galveston isn’t the only city criticized for its permitting process. League City has been working for months to change perceptions and fix real problems. That’s a common theme in a lot of places.
Given their role in the world, it’s natural and inevitable that building departments draw fire. If they’re doing their jobs, people working in building departments insist on adherence to both obvious and obscure rules, require paperwork that some will find onerous and charge fees for all the unpleasant and officious effort. That’s their job and pushback and criticism is their fate, deserved or not.
But it’s also fair to say that building departments earn some of the criticism directed at them. Sometimes, the rules can become the point, the end rather than the means, and departments forget who they work for — the taxpaying public, which includes developers and investors.
Developing and Planning Director Tim Tietjens conceded there was a perception problem in Galveston.
“Folks don’t necessarily think that our people are really trying to help — that they’re trying to impede,” Tietjens said. “Obviously, that’s not a situation that the city wants to be in. We really want to help folks get to where they need to be.”
The department is making changes based on a report from an independent consultant who audited the department and made almost 30 recommendations about how to improve its operations.
The city hired Ron Cox Consulting and Marsh Darcy Partners, both Houston-area firms, for the project.
The firms interviewed people who frequently apply for permits, employees of Galveston’s building department and of building departments in some other cities.
Some of the consultants’ biggest recommendations were for the department to make better use of its software and to become more efficient.
It was disturbing to learn that each reviewer/inspector seems to follow his own version of plan review, inspections and reporting protocols, which is a perfect recipe for sluggish and excessively complicated, not to mention arbitrary and capricious, administration of policy.
Also concerning are complaints by developers and architects that the city isn’t helpful in complicated projects.
“Here in Galveston we’ve gotten the response that it’s not our job to help you solve the problem — you need to figure it out,” island architect David Watson said.
We’re not suggesting building officials ignore rules or help developers and others get around regulations. We’re asking them to work with developers to ensure a project meets all city rules, but also goes as smoothly and quickly as possible for people who are willing to invest in communities.
It’s true that not all projects are welcome by all residents. But the building department should be above politics, ensuring only that rules are followed and in the most practical way.
Not all development is bad, and not all developers should have to jump through extraordinary hoops to build something.
In the city’s defense, it has long organized pre-development meetings to help people understand the rules before they even begin and to avoid complications.
The department understands it has a problem, which is a first step. We hope leaders follow through and take up recommendations by the consultants. A more efficient way of operating will encourage investment in the city, which is a good thing.
• Laura Elder