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Charles County commissioners ripped the Department of Planning and Growth Management on Tuesday for performing too slowly. Two top planning officials pushed back, saying the department received conflicting instructions from the board.

Planning Director Peter Aluotto and Frank Ward, chief of codes, permits and inspections, gave a presentation on the department’s progress on recommendations made by an independent auditor in May.

While the department will hire an ombudsman, who will help applicants apply for permits, early next year, commissioners said that move and others are coming later than they should.

“We’ve got a whole lot of ‘in process,’ ‘in progress,’” commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said. “I’ve got to tell you, gentlemen, my personal opinion is I do hear from customers, and this is taking entirely too long.”

Kelly was particularly interested in a project to allow applicants to track permit applications online. Aluotto said his department was discussing the project with county information technology workers, but Kelly wanted concrete progress.

“It needs to be on the Internet, and people need to be able to see in real time what the snag is,” Kelly said.

Homeowners can be intimidated by county inspectors, said Commissioner Ken Robinson (D), who urged the department to be patient with laymen.

“Too often, we receive phone calls from citizens about the heavy-handed [tactics] of the county when dealing with zoning violations. I would strongly recommend we take a kinder, gentler approach when dealing with citizens who may or may not have a zoning violation because it comes down to customer service,” Robinson said.

Ward objected that the department had been told to be more aggressive in pursuing zoning violations and that the directives were incompatible.

“On the one hand, I’m being told we’re not enforcing these zoning violations quickly enough,” then being told to be circumspect, Ward said.

Inspectors could be efficient without being overzealous, Robinson replied.

On the commercial side, inspectors could work with business owners instead of citing them, Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) suggested. For a sign violation, “instead of saying, ‘Take the banner down,’ [say,] ‘Fill out these papers and get a temporary permit,’” he said.

“There’s a point in the process where we say, ‘We’ve worked with them enough.’ We need to move to the next step in the process,” Ward responded.

Things have changed for the better since Aluotto took over in September 2011, said Douglas W. Meeker, vice president in charge of Charles County for Elm Street Development, in an interview Wednesday.

“I would say a strength, in general, is just accessibility. Most of the people down there are very accessible and are willing to answer questions or help you find the information you’re looking for, in general. That’s not necessarily the case in other jurisdictions,” Meeker said.

But he looked forward to the arrival of an online tracking system, saying it would benefit developers and the department.

“I’m familiar with other jurisdictions that do have online permit information. It is helpful in that you can access that information at any time, not just during normal business hours. Also, I think it’s a benefit to the county because if that information isn’t online, then you have to call somebody, they have to stop whatever they’re doing to look up the information and get the answer. So, I think it would benefit both sides to have something in place,” he said.

emitrano@somdnews.com