Traffic jam in Los Angeles/thinkstock

In summary

The state Department of Motor Vehicles is being sharply and justifiably criticized for hours-long waits for service, but intervention by Gov. Jerry Brown’s office blocked a study of DMV operations by the state auditor’s office.

During two lengthy Capitol hearings last week, legislators took turns castigating the Department of Motor Vehicles and its director, Jean Shiomoto, over Californians’ hours-long waits for service, often in the hot sun, at DMV offices.

The chorus was bipartisan, with lawmakers reminding Shiomoto that the DMV is the most frequent contact Californians have with their state government, and its failures undermine public confidence in that government.

Shiomoto was a little defensive, pointing out that with the federal government demanding more secure “Real ID” driver’s licenses and with the Legislature authorizing licenses for undocumented immigrants and making DMV a voter registration agency, the department’s workload had increased.

However, she told the first hearing, “I want to apologize to our customers,” adding, “the public deserves better.”

Yes it does, and the Legislature could have prodded service improvements by authorizing state Auditor Elaine Howle to delve into DMV operations, report on why service had deteriorated so suddenly after years of improvement, and recommend ways to fix it.

However, after the second hearing, the legislative committee that oversees Howle’s office refused to approve a DMV audit, even though it quickly approved others of relatively minor, even local, operations that have little impact on 40 million Californians.

Three Democratic state senators refused to vote on the DMV audit after, it became evident, Gov. Jerry Brown’s office had intervened. The tipoff to that intervention was contained in a Twitter posting by one of the three senators, Santa Monica’s Ben Allen.

“Gov. Brown’s office called to give me the governor’s commitment to address the issues raised under the audit request,” Allen said.

The DMV imbroglio is illuminating, to wit:

  • It’s the latest example of embarrassing mismanagement by state officials in recent years, including countless failures of very expensive “information technology” programs, fiscal chicanery in the Department of Parks and Recreation, horrendous cost overruns and construction defects in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge upgrade, and the near-failure of Oroville Dam due to shoddy spillway design and construction.
  • Brown clearly didn’t want an audit report that would almost certainly be critical of his administration’s management being issued a few months after his governorship ends in January.
  • State senators, who are supposed to put the public’s interests first, put party loyalty first, caved in to the governor’s self-interest and demonstrated anew the politicization of the auditor’s office.

Brown has often lamented California’s inability to do the big projects that were a hallmark of the state during the post-World War II era, such as freeways, dams and canals. He’s tied that lament to his own pet projects, twin tunnels to carry water beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a north-south bullet train.

However, when the Bay Bridge’s construction defects were uncovered, thanks mostly to tireless reporting by the Sacramento Bee that overcame resistance from his administration, Brown’s reaction was a dismissive “shit happens.” And his Department of Water Resources was less than forthcoming about defects at Oroville Dam, which had been built during his father’s governorship.

One must ask this question: If the state can’t operate the Department of Motor Vehicles efficiently and conveniently, tolerates shoddy construction and maintenance in big public works projects, and has a long string of information technology failures, why should we believe that the tunnels or the bullet train would be done right?

Looking to the future, if DMV is a hot mess, how could the state possibly run a $400 billion single-payer health care system that Brown’s almost certain successor, Gavin Newsom, and other Democratic politicians so stridently advocate?

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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...