Frustrated with missed deadlines and cost overruns, county supervisors voted 5-0 this week to fire the consulting firm that has worked to draft a general plan, the county’s long-term planning document that determines development and land use over the next 20 years. To read the Draft General Plan, click here.
Supervisor Robert Rivas made the motion that directed the county’s planning staff and county counsel to “end the relationship with Mintier Harnish, and come back to us with next steps.”
The move surprised Jim Harnish, a partner at the Sacramento-based firm. Reached by e-mail for comment Tuesday evening, Harnish said it was news to him and “disappointing, if true.” He said he would have further comment once he returns from vacation and speaks with county staff.
The county has spent more than three years working with Mintier Harnish and more than $1 million. Cost overruns related to correcting inaccurate traffic data and mandated environmental impacts have totaled $67,000, some of which supervisors said they hope to recoup by transferring to a new consultant. Supervisors directed the firm to use traffic and population data that was ultimately considered inaccurate and had to be re-done, according to earlier comments from Mintier Harnish.
"We had to conduct additional greenhouse gas inventory and additional traffic analysis after the county realized the available data was either unavailable or unsuitable for the EIR analysis," Harnish said in February, 2013. Normally consulting firms rely on regional agencies' traffic models when preparing General Plan EIRs, but when Mintier Harnish's traffic consultants looked into the Association of Monterey Bay Area Government (AMBAG) traffic model, they found that the model did not include all of the data necessary for a Countywide traffic analysis. Air quality and traffic are required elements of a general plan and EIR under state law. Supervisors said they were hopeful that ending the contract would save them money.
“Any savings we have, we need to get that money back,” Supervisor Margie Barrios said.
Supervisors expressed frustration at the delay of finalizing the document and accused Mintier Harnish of not be responsive to requests that the general plan language be flexible to accommodate future land use issues in the county. The public comment period for the document ended in April, however, the firm did hold several public meetings and established a General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC), that finished its work more than a year ago. The process hit another bump when former County Planning Director Gary Armstrong resigned last spring. Armstrong cited an under-staffed department as one of the hurdles he faced trying to complete the plan on time.
Larry Barr, President of the San Benito County Business Council, was one of several residents to file comments on the plan.
"We commend the County on its planning efforts and environmental analysis and write to offer suggestions on ways to strengthen the environmental analysis while providing the County with flexibility for future planning efforts. These suggestions are intended to strike a balance between the need to sustain and protect important resources, which we support, with the need to permit the County to thrive, expand and enhance the community job base, improve the economic climate, support a superior quality of life and actively contribute to the wellbeing of the communities of San Benito County," Barr said in a letter dated May 14, 2013.
To read the full letter, click here.
Interim Planning Director Byron Turner said that despite putting the item on the agenda for discussion, he did not anticipate supervisors’ strong reaction to Mintier Harnish’s work to date.
“I was expecting more of a discussion about staffing up our department so we could finish the plan," Turner said. “I did not know they were going to ask us to end our relationship with Mintier Harnish.”
The decision postpones the county’s requirement to finish the general plan, a mandate for all counties in California.
“The state knows that we are in the process of updating our general plan,” Turner added. “We are flagged as a county that has an out of date general plan. As far as timing goes, this is going to throw a wrench into our timeline. We are bare bones staff right now and it is slow processing applications, the large and middle-range projects take longer, but we are able to process smaller projects.”
County Counsel Matthew Granger noted that Mintier Harnish had all but completed its work with the county and the supervisors were not in any violation of the Brown Act to take action on the matter.
"For all intensive purposes we were at the end of our contract," Granger said. "We were 95-97% finished. Mintier Harnish knew this item was on the agenda. Supervisors were asked to give direction to staff and their direction was to end this contract and come back with next steps."