While DMV Bureaucrats Take the Heat,
State's Elected Politicians Lie Low


by Del Tartikoff
copyright 1997, Electric Nevada

Nevada's governor and state legislators have been virtually mum about it, but the car insurance verification fiasco currently roiling the state grew directly out of decisions they made.
The fiasco? Of over 11,000 drivers fined in 1996 by the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles' so-called 'insurance verification program,' more than half -- 6,212 -- had full insurance coverage but were still compelled to pay the DMV $310,600 in $50 fines.
It's the verification program itself that's the real problem, say the drivers. Badly designed from the start, it's also being mismanaged, they say, by an institutionally stupid and indifferent state bureaucracy.
Responsible for the program's design were state legislators and Gov. Bob Miller. Not once, but twice -- in both the 1993 and 1995 legislative sessions -- they approved into law bills that established the grim scheme that DMV bureaucrats now enforce.
And who has had responsibility over the bureaucrats administering the program? Again, it was Governor Bob Miller and, under him, his personal appointee as director of the Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety, Jim Weller.
Friday, after five years working for the state, Weller resigned. His quitting, Miller press secretary Richard Urey assured reporters, had nothing at all to



do with the problems convulsing the DMV.
Weller wants "to pursue other interests" now, said Urey, and had asked for a meeting with Miller to tell him "he will move on effective April 5."
An FBI agent for many years before getting his state job, Weller has been trying to work on a book about his experiences as a federal agent, but found that conflicted with his duties at the DMV, said Urey.
"He tried to pursue that avocation but the demands of his current job are such that he can't do what he wants to do."
The agency Weller led has a long history of low morale and memories that even DMV staffers call "horrific." But in recent years, new hires authorized by the legislature shortened waiting lines.
Still, other controversies have dogged the department. In November, a number of Washoe County School District administrators were found to have received special 'undercover' plates from the DMV to put on their unmarked district cars.
According to DMV spokesman Gordon Absher, that was a violation of


 
state law. However, citing other laws, he refused to say who had authorized the plates.
Called "cold" plates by law enforcement agencies, the license plates look like those issued to private citizens and normally can't be traced to a public agency except by other law enforcement personnel.
"We're having a hard time trying to understand why school district administrators need cold plates. The only conclusion we've been able to draw is that they are using these vehicles for personal use and don't want anyone to know about it," said James Clark, chairman of a group critical of the Washoe County school district.
Then, early this month, Morse Arberry, D-North Las Vegas, chairman of the state assembly's Ways and Means Committee, raised similar questions regarding undercover plates the DMV turns out to have issued for 38 vehicles used by Nevada Highway Patrol administrators.
Arberry asked NHP officials to explain why they were using the unmarked state vehicles. He asked DMV officials to explain what legal authority they'd had for issuing the plates.
Agencies allowed to use cars for such purposes are outlined in state law, he said, and the Highway Patrol is not on that list.
Arberry also questioned whether the vehicles were being used for personal use.




"That's out of line," he said. "We don't tolerate that."
If some people have appeared to be receiving special favors of dubious legality from the state motor vehicle department, the agency has seemed, to other observers, essentially indifferent to ill-treatment it was dealing out to average Nevadans.
The Las Vegas Sun, in an editorial entitled "Stop DMV from abusing the public" wrote December 27 that "The state Department of Motor Vehicles' continuing outrage against law-abiding motorists deserves more than apologies and soothing excuses.
"The situation demands strong action by the governor and possibly the Legislature... It's obvious that the DMV, which in the past has been plagued with computer errors and onerous paper delays, is not doing its job in insurance verification. Promises by DMV Director Jim Weller to assign a committee to reform the process aren't good enough."
January 19, three weeks later, no changes had been done. A Sparks Tribune columnist wrote, "The problem has been known for a year or so," and suggested the indifference came right from Governor Miller.
Wrote columnist Ralph Heller: "What are we to make of a governor whose administration wrongly punishes 6,212 people and who still has offered no plan to remedy the situation? He's in Washington for the inaugural monkey shines.



"If Miller cared at all about his constituents he would have suspended this nightmare insurance verification program by now on an emergency basis, pending corrective action..."
Heller also directed fire at the Legislature, whose chronic response to problems in the agency has been, he said, "to pile more responsibilities on the DMV."
Heller noted that beginning this month, the agency was to begin collecting fees for unpaid parking tickets levied by some Nevada municipalities.
"Does it make sense to anybody," asked the columnist, "to continue to give more and more power to an agency already infamous throughout the state for its mismanagement of the responsibilities it already has?"
Although most lawmakers have seemed content this session to pose publicly as champions of average voters victimized by a stupid state bureaucracy, the stringent rules the DMV has been, and is still, enforcing, are the legacy of the 1993 and 1995 state legislatures.
As John Spradley, of Gardnerville, noted in a January 24 letter, "State Assemblyman Pete Ernaut states, 'I can't pass a bill that says "do your job."




The fix is administrative, not statutory.'
"I beg to differ," wrote Spradley. "Is it not law that allows the DMV to charge innocent people for a crime they did not commit? Are not the laws created by the lawmakers?"
Fallon resident Ted March made a similar point: "Evidently, when a question arises with the DMV, people in Nevada cannot simply have their local insurance agent verify that a car is indeed insured. Even the local DMV office, seeing the documents, getting a call from the agent, cannot vouch for one's insurance. The only verification process accepted is between Carson City and some insurance office's fax machine back East. Good luck.
"The problem is not computers or insurance companies," said March. "The problem is an agency that runs on inflexible, mindless policies reminiscent of a Soviet-style bureaucracy."
Many of the policies termed by March "inflexible" and "mindless" were specifically enacted by state lawmakers in 1993 and 1995. The one legislator who to so far at least verge on publicly acknowledged the Legislature's role in generating the problems is Vonne


 
Chowning, D-North Las Vegas, who chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee.
"This program is like a patient that's hemorrhaging," she said. "Perhaps in our zealousness to correct the problem we went too far."
While agency officials have repeatedly said DMV computer systems have been a major source of the agency's problems in correctly identifying no-insurance drivers, recent decisions made to address those difficulties are not inspiring confidence among state Information Services personnel.
In early January, at the same time Governor Bob Miller and Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, sitting on the state Board of Examiners, were approving a contract for a firm to do up




to $1 million in work for the DMV, the state Taxation Department was announcing that it would be suing the same firm for just about the same sum, on grounds that the firm had installed a defective computer system.
Best Consulting, of Seattle, Washington, was hired by the State of Nevada in 1992 for about $800,000 to install a new computer system for the Taxation Department for the collection of sales and business tax revenues. The system, according to taxation officials, never worked the way it was designed.
The Taxation Department had to get another $440,000 to start to fix the system, according to Deputy Taxation Director Forrest Thorne. Talks have been going on for one year with Best in an effort to resolve the problem, he said, but nothing has been settled.



There are still problems crediting the accounts of businesses, says Thorne, and even though the system is new, it does not solve the "year 2000 problem" -- recognized by programmers, since the early '90s, as necessary for new systems to address.
According to State Budget Director Perry Comeaux, the state Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety, not knowing about the problems at Taxation, in early 1996 signed a $400,000 contract with Best Consulting, under which the Seattle firm was to make recommendations to restructure the DMV systems.
Then, when that contract ran out, he said, the department went out to bid and again chose Best Consulting for another, $543,000, contract.
Comeaux said that state IS director




Comeaux said that state IS director Marlene Lockard was reluctant to okay the Best contracts, and Lockard agrees.
"I sought legal guidance [regarding the contract] because of a question in my mind whether it was appropriate, given the difficulties with the prior contract with the Taxation Department," said Lockard.
"I was advised by the attorney general's office I must sign the pending contract with Best Consulting."
Comeaux also said there had been a "lot of internal discussion" in his office about allowing the DMV to contract with Best, after the problems at Taxation.
The DMV, however, he said, had been "adamant" about wanting to hire Best.


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