In one of his first acts as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger fired the director of the Department of Motor Vehicles and replaced him Tuesday with a longtime state official known as a troubleshooter.
The action came as the new governor zeroed in on two of his highest priority projects: eliminating the highly unpopular $4-billion-a-year increase in motor vehicle registration fees and repealing a controversial new law that would enable undocumented immigrants, effective Jan. 1, to get a California driver's license without a background check.
Schwarzenegger repeated Tuesday that he is in no mood to seek a compromise with some Democrats in the Legislature that would allow Californians who broke immigration laws to drive legally in California.
"We want to get rid of it," he said at his first news conference as governor.
Schwarzenegger did not directly address in his news conference the decision to replace DMV Director Steve Gourley with Chon Guitierrez. Vincent Sollitto, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, said the governor believes the DMV is a key agency and wanted someone he trusted to run it.
"There are a number of very important issues involving the Department of Motor Vehicles," Sollitto said. "It is important that the governor's administration have an interim director in who they have a great deal of respect."
Gourley was fired without notice Monday shortly after Schwarzenegger took the oath of office. But the action was not confirmed by the new governor until announcement Tuesday of Gutierrez's interim appointment to the $123,255-a-year post. Gourley turned aside reporters' requests for comment, but friends said he got a call at 3:10 p.m. Monday and was told to clean out his desk by the close of business.
One associate described him as shellshocked by the timing and speed of his dismissal. An attorney, Gourley, a former mayor of Culver City, had told friends he had hoped for an appointment by Davis to a judgeship.
But Gourley's firing did not sit well with at least one consumer activist, Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Automobile Reliability and Safety. She called his removal a payback by car dealers whom Gourley had investigated and penalized for various alleged misdeeds, including how cars were financed. Shahan labeled Gourley the "most pro-consumer DMV director we've ever had in California. DMV directors all over the country were looking to Gourley for leadership."
Sollitto, the Schwarzenegger spokesman, refused to respond directly to Shahan's charges. But he said Gutierrez was picked because of his vast knowledge and four decades of experience in government.
Peter K. Welch, a spokesman and lobbyist for the California Motor Car Dealers Assn., denied the allegations. The group contributed $800,000 to Schwarzenegger's recall campaign and helped underwrite costs of his inauguration.
"It's ludicrous," he said of the charge. "We didn't ask that the DMV director be relieved of his duties on [Schwarzenegger's] first day in office."
He said it was logical that the governor would want one of his own appointees as director of the DMV quickly. "There are obviously a lot of tricky issues over at the DMV right now," Welch said.
Traditionally, gubernatorial appointees resign when a new governor is elected. Swift firings such as Gourley's are rare, and aides to Schwarzenegger have not indicated whether more will follow.
Gutierrez is known as a veteran troubleshooter who has moved from one administration to another, often being summoned behind the scenes to put out bureaucratic brush fires before they became full blown firestorms. He has worked for the state for 40 years.
In 1985, Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Gutierrez to head up the fledgling state lottery before a permanent director was named. Two years later, he returned to the lottery as its director. At the time, revenue had fallen dramatically and Gutierrez was charged with revitalizing the operation.
When Republican Pete Wilson became governor in 1991, he replaced Gutierrez amid another slump in lottery revenue.