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Gov. Jerry Brown orders audit of DMV over hours-long wait times

Gov. Jerry Brown orders audit of DMV over hours-long wait times
A line of people stretches around the South L.A. location of a California Department of Motor Vehicles Office on Aug. 7. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday ordered a performance audit of the state Department of Motor Vehicles in response to the public outcry over hours-long wait times and repeated computer crashes that delayed serving customers.

State Finance Director Keely Martin Bosler, who was appointed by Brown, notified the agency that her office will conduct the financial review amid concerns about the DMV’s performance.

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“As we have discussed, long wait times at the Department of Motor Vehicles do not reflect the high standards of service that Californians expect from their state government,” Bosler wrote in a letter Friday to DMV Director Jean Shiomoto.

The audit by Bosler’s staff will look at issues including field office operations, the customer experience, computer problems and the DMV’s governance structure. It will also examine an estimated 23,000 errors at DMV offices when people either were unknowingly registered to vote or had mistakes made in their registration status — problems that began during the rollout of the state’s new “motor voter” program.

The review will cost about $800,000 and is expected to result in a report with recommendations to be released to the public in March, according to H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Finance Department.

With Brown leaving office in January, the timing of the audit means any proposals for improving DMV operations will be considered by the next governor and Legislature.

Residents have complained in the last three months of waiting four to six hours at DMV offices as the agency deals with complications caused by Real IDs, a new driver’s license and identification card design required for airline passengers starting in late 2020.

The delays have been worsened by frequent computer crashes, including one Thursday that interrupted operations at 68 of the DMV’s 172 field offices for more than two hours.

Bosler credited the DMV with actions in the last few months to reduce wait times that include extending field office hours, opening more than 60 offices on Saturdays, setting up more self-service terminals and hiring hundreds of additional workers.

“While these actions have already brought down wait times, recent developments have also underscored the need for further analysis,” Bosler wrote to the DMV. The intent of the audit, she added, “is to determine the facts in a manner that will not disrupt DMV's ongoing efforts to reduce response times.”

The audit will identify “customer service improvements and other operational efficiencies that will improve ongoing essential services,” Bosler said.

When asked if the governor still has confidence in Shiomoto, a spokesman for Brown said, “Right now our focus is on getting the problems fixed.”

The DMV director said her agency will cooperate with the auditor.

“We welcome the Department of Finance’s input into DMV’s ongoing efforts to reduce wait times and improve customer service and stand ready to assist with the audit,” Shiomoto said.

The audit is necessary to find solutions for “deep and wide” problems in the agency, said Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno, a leading critic of the DMV operations.

Patterson said DMV records indicate the agency has suffered 35 computer outages in the last 18 months, and he said Shiomoto has not taken the issue seriously enough.

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“I am very pleased that the governor recognizes that the people of California have been suffering because of a department that has demonstrated huge ineptness,” said Patterson, who is vice chairman of an Assembly committee on government accountability.

Patterson had criticized the Democratic majority in the Legislature last month for killing a proposal to conduct a state audit of the DMV.

A report to the Legislature on Aug. 15 indicated that a shift in staffing at field offices allowed the DMV to reduce the average wait time for those without appointments to 137 minutes from 162 minutes the week before, with some offices experiencing much longer wait times.

On Friday, DMV officials said the average wait time for those without an appointment statewide has dropped to 53 minutes.

However, for the top 20 offices with the longest wait times, the average as of Wednesday was 61 minutes, ranging from 112 minutes at one office to a low of 18 minutes at another, the DMV reported.

Patterson said the state’s official goal is to allow DMV customers to complete transactions in an hour or less, and he hopes the audit allows that to be achieved at every field office.

Later in the day, Brown vetoed five bills that would have put new workloads on the DMV, including a measure that would separate citations for driving under the influence of marijuana from drunk driving so the state could determine the scope of the drugged driving problem.

“Reducing wait times in field offices and addressing the urgent needs of customers is the top priority,” Brown wrote in his veto message. “The programming required to implement these bills will delay the department’s ability to fully modernize its aging information technology systems.”

John Cox, the Republican candidate for governor, has made the long wait times a major issue in his campaign against Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who also seeking the office.

“Better late than never,” Cox said of the audit announcement in a statement Friday. “It's an important first step that I have been shining light on for months. The Sacramento political class has done a shameful job addressing these real problems plaguing millions of Californians.”

The audit can build on information collected at recent public hearings on DMV problems held by the Legislature, according to Assemblyman Phil Ting, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee.

“While wait times are improving at the DMV, the experiences of Californians at field offices across the state tell us that issues remain,” said Ting, a San Francisco Democrat.

2 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details on the audit and a quote from GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox.

This article was originally published at 1:25 p.m.

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