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

Jerry Brown has never been interested in management of the state bureaucracy and as he prepares to retire from the governorship he probably will leave behind a managerial debacle in the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

During his nearly 16 years as governor, Jerry Brown has displayed many attributes – some positive, some negative and some self-contradictory.

One consistent trait has been his obvious disdain for nuts-and-bolts management of a very large organizational structure. Brown prefers to explore more interesting, often abstract issues and leave day-to-day management of the bureaucracy to others.

During his first governorship, Brown’s chief of staff (and future governor himself), Gray Davis, was widely viewed as the “real governor” within the Capitol. Brown concentrated on high-concept notions and perpetual campaigns for other offices, while trusting Davis to keep the bureaucracy in line.

His lack of interest in managerial duties backfired badly in 1981 when an infestation of Mediterranean fruit flies threatened to devastate the state’s fruit tree industry.

The straightforward response would have been to fight back with insecticide, but Brown insisted on a non-chemical response of plucking the flies from trees by hand, only to reverse himself when the Legislature erupted in opposition.

The fruit fly debacle clobbered Brown’s standing in opinion polls and contributed to his rather embarrassing failure to win a U.S. Senate seat the next year.

Brown 2.0 has been more engaged in governance, but he still dislikes hands-on management and tends to shun responsibility when things go awry, such as his infamous comment of “shit happens” when serious defects in the state’s project to upgrade the Bay Bridge were revealed.

That brings us to the Department of Motor Vehicles, the state agency that Californians love to hate, most recently for being compelled to wait hours to do their legally mandated business.

Critics called for an audit of DMV operations by the notoriously tough state auditor’s office but under pressure from Brown’s office, legislators refused to approve one earlier this year.

Brown eventually ordered an internal audit by the Department of Finance, which is answerable only to him, but complaints continued and early this month, the Legislature had another hearing that concentrated on the DMV’s slow-as-molasses rollout of new driver’s licenses, called Real ID, required by the federal government.

Two years from now, Real ID will be required to board airplanes. But the DMV has issued only a tiny fraction of the 25 million required new licenses even though it has had 13 years to prepare, and is now seeking a second extension of time to comply.

“It doesn’t appear to me we’re anywhere near on track. I’m just worried about the chaos that may ensue…,” said state Sen. Ben Allen, a Santa Monica Democrat. “There’s this huge cloud out there of getting from 1.5 million to 25 million in the course of two years.”

Just a few days after that hearing, still another DMV debacle emerged – this time about automatically registering customers to vote when they do business with the agency.

DMV officials had already admitted that the agency botched 23,000 such registrations and then it was revealed last week that it had mistakenly registered about 1,500 persons in a separate incident “due to a processing error.”

The possibility, however faint, that some registrants are non-citizens fueled new, albeit unsubstantiated, allegations from the political right that California politicians want undocumented immigrants to vote. Even Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a big booster of “motor voter,” was incensed, and called for an outside investigation of the agency.

Brown has fewer than 90 days remaining in his governorship and it’s likely that as he departs, a massive managerial failure in an agency that affects the lives of virtually every Californian will still be hanging in the air.

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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...