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Capitol DMV handles tough constituent problems

If you walk in the Legislative Office Building, pass a CHP officer who
claims not to know of it’s existence, go through an official-looking door,
take a couple turns and follow some cryptic signs, you’ll find the locked,
unmarked door of a Department of Motor Vehicles location that probably won’t
serve you.

But the Capitol DMV isn’t arousing the kind of attention it used to get back
in the day when small-government activist Ralph Morrell was lambasting it
for only serving legislators and staffers. In fact, this hidden little
office does serve the public–thousands of times a year, according to Bill
Cather, legislative director of the California DMV. You just have to have a
problem so exasperating that you end up calling your legislator.
“People think it’s a perk for legislators and staff,” Cather said of the
hidden, two-employee office. “Ninety percent of what we do is for
constituents.”

The office is staffed by Pat Steuben and Janel Williams, two women who have
a combined 37 years experience with the DMV. Each has been in the Capitol
office over a decade.

Their experience–and an intimate knowledge of the DMV computer system–allows
Steuben and Williams tackle problems that have confounded other DMV
employees. Frustrated constituents often end up calling their legislator,
Cather said–a situation that many Capitol staffers are all too familiar
with. The women handle 20,000 or more requests a year, around 80 a day,
mainly constituent issues and answering work-related DMV questions for
legislative staffers, Cather said.

“If they weren’t here, I could get the answers I needed, but it would take a
lot longer,” said an Assembly Transportation Committee staffer who confirmed
he routes several constituent requests each year to the Capitol DMV, which
sits across the hall. “Which is not to say I don’t go over there sometimes
for a personal issue.”

Most of the problems that pass through the office follow a few basic themes.

For instance, car registrations can be held up if people owe money for
parking tickets. But city governments aren’t always up-to-date in taking
these debts out of the system after they’re paid.

Other common problems involve the often complex process of getting one’s
license back after losing it because of traffic tickets or a medical
problem. Then there is the issue of smog certificates, which often leave
constituents confused–especially when registering an out-of-state car.

Cather said the office just helped out a man who contacted Senator Mike
Machado, D-Linden, because his license had been suspended over a mix-up with
his insurance company.

When they’re not doing constituent work, Cather said, Steuben and Williams
will take care of licenses and registrations for legislators and staffers.

But the place is hardly a full-service DMV; they won’t do driving tests,
vehicle inspections or anything else that involves them leaving the room.
The types of requests the office handles increasingly can be done without an
office visit anyway, Cather said. The DMV announced in June that they’ve
handled seven million online vehicle registrations since 2000, as well as
700,000 online license renewals since 2004. The DMV also is rolling out
24-hour, self-service terminals outside of several locations.

The idea that the downtown office is simply a “private DMV” for legislators
probably has numerous origins. For one thing, the office isn’t listed on the
DMV Web site. It also has moved more times than Jerry Brown has run for
president. The DMV has had a Capitol office for more than 40 years,
including at least two locations inside the Capitol itself–and once did
serve the walk-in needs of the general public.

It operated out of a tiny office in the basement garage until 1993, when
security concerns that followed the first World Trade Center bombing forced
it to move to an office at 1021 O Street. After that building was torn down
in 1999, the agency decided to stop taking walk-ins.

“We were so disruptive to the other legislative offices,” Cather said. “We
had lines out the door. People were bringing their kids.”

Thus, the office ended up at its current, obscure location. Just as the era
of the Capitol DMV directly serving the public has ended, so to might its
era as a nemesis of government critics. Morrell made the office an issue in
years past as part of his campaigns to limit legislative antics like ghost
voting and maintaining slush funds.

But Morrell–who became so well known that he became the subject of a
biography, California’s Legislative Gadfly, published in 2004–died last
October at the age of 87. While Morrell is fondly remembered on the Web site
of the group he founded, Northern California Coalition for Limited
Government, chairman Phelps Hobart said the Capitol DMV isn’t an issue to
them.

“I go to the DMV at AAA,” Hobart said. “I think it’s probably cost-effective
for them to have that office.”


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