Honolulu’s motor vehicles department shrugged off concerns about long wait times for obtaining driver’s licenses, state identification cards and other services and failed to implement improvements put forward by Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration, according to a city audit released late Friday afternoon.

The Honolulu City Council requested the audit last year after reports of long wait times at motor vehicle offices throughout Oahu.

Media reports subsequently showed people camping out overnight to obtain driver’s licenses on a walk-in basis to avoid three-month wait times to take a driving test. Customers were shown sleeping on cardboard boxes on the sidewalk and hiding toilet paper in the bushes in case people needed to relieve themselves during the hours-long wait.

Morning traffic on South Beretania at the Punchbowl St. intersection. 1.9.14 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Honolulu traffic jams aren’t the only waiting times for drivers, according to a city audit.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

But the Department of Customer Services’ Motor Vehicle, Licensing and Permits Program didn’t think the situation was worthy of concern, according to the audit.

“MVLP managers and staff stated the processing times and lines are what they are, and the need to reduce lines and wait times is unnecessary,” according to the audit.

Edwin Young, the city auditor, listed 13 recommendations for improving the department, including customer service training, filling vacant positions more efficiently and developing better queuing systems to reduce wait times.

The audit paints a picture of bureaucratic dysfunction, exacerbated by new federal requirements under the REAL ID Act, which increased the department’s workload. While the increase was anticipated, MVLP failed to prepare, the audit states, and left vacant positions open for years, contributing to long wait times, the audit said.

The mayor’s office and the Department of Customer Services, which oversees MVLP, tried to implement improvements, such as establishing “online queues,” where people didn’t have to stand in line, according to the audit. But MVLP managers didn’t always know about the proposed changes — in part, because city employees were prohibited from communicating with Department of Customer Services managers.  

“When informed of the initiatives, MVLP managers reported they were not consulted about the corrective actions or the actions to be implemented,” according to the audit. “MVLP staff were not permitted to communicate with CSD managers and this may have contributed to their lack of awareness of the initiatives.”

The audit was released just as most city employees began their three-day Labor Day weekend. Officials from the Auditor’s Office and the departments that were the subject of the audit could not be reached for comment.

The audit levels considerable criticism at a “former MVLP administrator” that it doesn’t name.

“According to the former MVLP administrator, he did not support the new initiatives because he believed the mayor’s office and CSD upper level managers were not knowledgable enough to make the correct decisions, or did not understand the impact of these initiatives on the MVLP operations,” the audit states. 

In one instance, the director of the Department of Customer Services wanted to measure waiting times, but MVLP opposed the idea, claiming its union agreement prevented such monitoring, the audit states. 

The Customer Services director also tried to implement a number-pull waiting system, which would allow people to leave to use the restroom, eat lunch or run errands while they waited. But the former administrator of MVLP opposed the idea, according to the audit, because in the past customers were taking more than one number and selling them. 

“The former MVLP administrator stated the status quo of having everyone stand in line and processed on a first-come first-served bases was better because customers had to pay attention to the line and the processing, and the first-come, first-served system was fairer,” the audit states.

Staffing Shortages

Staffing is also a major cause of long wait times, with 25 percent of available positions vacant, according to the audit. For instance, nine of the 34 openings for driver’s license examiner positions were vacant at the time of the audit. Six of the positions had been open for more than a year and three of the positions had remained vacant for over five years. MVLP hadn’t hired an examiner since 2009. 

MVLP also failed to hire staff to handle the increased workload brought on by the Real ID Act, federal legislation that requires greater documentation to obtain state identification cards, the audit states.

In June 2012, the City Council approved the mayor’s request to add nine new positions at MVLP to handle the increased workload. However, the former MVLP administrator said he couldn’t justify accepting all nine new staffers and only accepted five, according to the audit, later accepting two more. 

“The number of positions accepted by MVLP was inadequate to handle the increased workload or to maintain an acceptable level of customer service,” the audit states.

Sheri Kajiwara, director of the Department of Customer Services, concurred with most of the recommendations in written responses to the auditor.

Kajiwara also laid out the department’s past efforts to improve long wait times in a letter to Young. This includes a temporary hotline to accommodate complaints related to the new federal ID requirements, installing online cameras at five motor vehicle sites so residents can gauge wait time and establishing pull number systems at two motor vehicle offices. 

You can read the full 60-page audit and responses from Kajiwara here

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