A picture of a California DMV office is shown. | Photo: Flickr/Michael Ocampo
A California Department of Motor Vehicles office. (Photo: Flickr/Michael Ocampo)

In summary

State legislators complain about hours-long waits at Department of Motor Vehicles offices, but refuse to audit the agency to determine causes and enjoy having a private DMV office to serve their needs. The situation fuels public disdain for state and local officials.

Forcing motorists to wait for hours – sometimes in 100-degree heat – to do their business with the Department of Motor Vehicles obviously erodes whatever affection they might have had for state government and its politicians.

Repeatedly, during two legislative hearings on the DMV’s operational crisis last week, lawmakers reminded the department’s director, career bureaucrat Jean Shiomoto, of that fact.

“It is the face of California government,” Assemblyman Jim Frazier, a Discovery Bay Democrat, told Shiomoto at one point.

However, after the second hearing, the legislative committee that oversees the state auditor’s office refused – apparently at the behest of Gov. Jerry Brown – to authorize an audit to determine why DMV allowed a preventable crisis to occur.

That refusal, coming after hours of putting the situation on public display, comes across as placing political expediency ahead of the motoring public’s interest.

And then another bombshell dropped.

The Sacramento Bee revived an old story about the DMV’s maintaining a “secret office” near the Capitol that allows politicians and their staffers to avoid long waits for service.

“The office serves current and retired members of the Legislature and Congress; current legislative staff; employees of the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Legislative Counsel and the Legislative Data Center; and elected and appointed officials,” the Bee reported.

It’s been around for decades, was once in the Capitol itself, and its existence has been periodically reported by the state’s political media, including yours truly. But the Bee’s new story was very timely, given the furor over long DMV waits.

Apologists for the private DMV office, including DMV officials themselves, insisted that its main function isn’t to benefit officials, but to help legislative staffers respond to constituents with particular problems.

Balderdash. That function could just as easily be served by staff in the DMV’s headquarters elsewhere in Sacramento without having a special office. There aren’t special Capitol offices for other service agencies, such as those dispensing unemployment insurance checks or health and welfare services.

Inescapably, it is a graphic example of how those in the upper ranks of California officialdom take care of themselves, fueling the disdain that supposedly concerns Frazier and other legislators. If the DMV is the “face of California government,” as he says, the private DMV office is its two-facedness.

Nor is it an isolated example.

Last weekend, the Los Angeles Times reported that before being appointed as Los Angeles’ new police chief, Michael Moore “took a brief, highly unusual retirement” that allowed him to rejoin the police department while claiming “a financial windfall: a lump sum retirement payment of $1.27 million from the city.”

That’s because of Moore’s enrollment in an unusual program that allows what amounts to double-dipping, one that has “paid out more than $1.6 billion in extra pension checks to Los Angeles police and firefighters since its inception in 2001,” the Times reported, adding, “Officers don’t have to work extra hours or perform extra duties to receive the money; it’s a reward for longevity.”

Other examples of self-serving official boondoggles abound, such as the Legislature’s manipulating its schedule so that members receive $192 per day in tax-free “per diem” to cover their living expenses seven days a week – nearly $6,000 a month – even though they typically spend fewer than three full days in Sacramento each week.

It could all backfire come November, when those exasperated motorists and other voters pass judgment on a multi-billion-dollar package of gas taxes and fees that the Legislature passed to fix the state’s dilapidated streets and highways.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...