From neighborhood traffic-calming projects to an ambitious push to rethink the role of police in street safety, efforts to make changes on Berkeley’s roads have for months faced the same problem: a shortage of staff in the city’s Transportation Division means there aren’t enough workers to turn those visions into reality.
Now the list of vacant positions officials must fill to address the backlog of projects includes the division’s leader.
City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley confirmed this week that Farid Javandel, who oversaw the Transportation Division for more than a decade, is no longer a city employee.
Javandel’s departure appears to be the culmination of a tumultuous chapter for the streets office: Berkeleyside has learned that city officials last summer launched a lengthy investigation into how transportation staff handled a fiercely debated proposal to build protected bike lanes along Hopkins Street. Javandel’s official last day as a city employee was May 8, but a city hall source said he had been put on administrative leave in early April, when Williams-Ridley announced that the Hopkins project was being indefinitely postponed. The city manager cited the division’s staffing shortage as a reason for the delay, and also described a need to “convey confidence and integrity” in the work of its staff.
Even before the upheaval this spring, though, Berkeley officials were expressing alarm at the division’s high vacancy rate. More than two-dozen projects or plans were on hold as of last December because of vacancies, Williams-Ridley wrote in a memo highlighting its challenges.
“Our staffing issues are holding transportation projects around the city back,” said Karen Parolek, the chair of the city’s Transportation Commission and a member of the street safety advocacy group Walk Bike Berkeley.
The Transportation Division, which is part of the Public Works Department, is far from alone in its vacancy challenges — city officials have also noted shortages of police officers, summer camp counselors and workers throughout local government. Public and private employers across the country are facing the same problem in the wake of what’s been dubbed the “Great Resignation.”
But advocates and some elected officials say the Transportation Division’s challenges threaten Berkeley’s ability to achieve some of its most important goals, including eliminating deadly traffic crashes and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Planning for a new Berkeley Department of Transportation — a vision for preventing serious collisions through roadway design and civilian enforcement, rather than police, that has drawn national attention — is on the long list of projects stalled by the staffing shortage.
Instead, Councilmember Rigel Robinson said the shorthanded Transportation Division is focusing on basic services and projects that have imminent deadlines. Robinson declined to comment on Javandel’s departure, but provided a written statement in which he said he is concerned about morale among city staff.
“This council has embraced an ambitious vision for safe streets and beautiful infrastructure,” Robinson wrote in a statement. “But with an incredibly short-staffed Transportation Division, it will be hard to deliver on our plans as quickly as we want to.
“It’s critical that we cultivate an environment where our staff feel valued here and supported in their work.”
Will Hopkins upheaval make staff shortage worse?
Prior to Javandel’s departure, city spokesman Matthai Chakko wrote in an email that the vacancy rate in the Transportation Division stood at 18%, and included “key positions” that affect its ability to deliver projects. The city manager’s December memo stated that five of the department’s eight “planner” positions were vacant.
“Many public agencies are currently experiencing high rates of vacancies, and we are not immune to that,” Chakko wrote. “Recruiting for these positions is a priority for the city, and our [Human Resources] Department is actively working to fill those vacancies.”
Berkeley spent nearly $90,000 last year to seek advice from a consultant on how to address vacancies throughout city government, and has undertaken several strategies since then that are meant to better attract and retain workers. They include adding more human resources staff to speed up the hiring process, improving the administrative systems workers use and contracting with a marketing agency to improve outreach to prospective candidates.
Parolek and Walk Bike Berkeley dispute the city manager’s assertion that vacancies in the Transportation Division prevented the Hopkins redesign from moving forward. But if the delay was a symptom of the city’s staffing shortage, street safety advocates contend the heated years-long public debate over the project also contributed to the problem.
Javandel’s exit means that each of the three Transportation Division employees who worked closely on the Hopkins redesign have now left their jobs. The reasons for those departures are not clear: City officials have refused to disclose whether Javandel resigned or was fired, and neither of the other two workers has spoken publicly about why they left city government.
But in a statement last month, Walk Bike Berkeley members connected the two, writing that “the staffing crisis is partially related to mistreatment transportation staff have suffered through the Hopkins project.”
The group was particularly critical of Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who represents much of the Hopkins neighborhood, charging that she “micromanaged and undermined staff’s work consistently throughout the project.”
In an interview last week, Hahn rejected the accusation that she treated staff inappropriately, or bears responsibility for vacancies in the division.
“Walk Bike Berkeley was never privy to any of my interactions with staff on this project, and therefore any characterization is speculative at best — and entirely false,” she said.
Hahn also questioned the idea that the Hopkins process had led to the Transportation Division’s vacancies, noting that staff shortages are a problem elsewhere in city government.
“Neither I nor the public knows all the reasons why each department or division has staffing shortages,” she said. “I have no doubt that we will be able to find excellent staff for any and all departments or divisions facing vacancies at this time.”
According to Parolek, though, the city’s decision to pull the plug on the closely watched Hopkins project will make it more difficult for Berkeley to recruit sought-after professionals who want to improve street safety.
“Transportation staff that are trained to do this are few and far between,” Parolek said. “Delaying this project just said to those people, ‘Don’t bother coming here, because we can’t get anything done.’”
Meanwhile, the decision to focus so much of the shorthanded Transportation Division’s attention on a single street in some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods has become a point of frustration for West Berkeley Councilmember Terry Taplin, who said it reflected a “pattern of unequal and inequitable resource distribution.”
The division’s services are in high demand: when city officials recently analyzed the number of pending “referrals” adopted by the City Council — directives that ask staff to develop plans, policies and projects — they found no department had more than Public Works, most of which were for transportation projects. Several councilmembers, including Taplin and Hahn, have said Berkeley must decide how to prioritize that backlog of projects.
While he supported the Hopkins bike lane, Taplin said residents in less-wealthy neighborhoods he represents are waiting for traffic safety improvements too. As an example, he pointed to a project to improve pedestrian crossings at the busy intersection of Addison and Sixth streets, which has been held up by a lack of funding as well as the shortage of transportation staff.
“If all of our resources hadn’t been tied up on Hopkins for two years,” Taplin said, “we probably could’ve gotten this done sooner.”