Monday, May 02, 2016

Christie's Populist Smokescreen & My Own MVC Experience

Gov Christie & Stacey Pilato at the NJ MVC in South Plainfield
Now some of you reading this may be from outside the New Jersey area so it may have been awhile since Governor Chris Christie has been on your media radar after he bowed out of the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination on February 10th.

Since returning to the governorship, he's been focusing his energies on the business of the state of New Jersey, in part to deflect widespread criticism for his endorsement of Donald Trump for president on February 26th.

Now I certainly can't claim to be an expert on "all-things-Christie" like WNYC reporter Matt Katz, whose Christie Tracker podcast is the go-to source for objective analysis of a Governor who's notorious about controlling press access to his events, but I do try to follow Garden State politics.

Last week Christie made local headlines when Stacey Pilato (pictured above), a New Jersey attorney, called into his weekly "Ask the Governor" radio show on NJ 101.5 FM last Wednesday to express frustration over her efforts to get a replacement learner's permit for her son Ike after the teen mistakenly left his his original permit in his jeans and it got ruined in the washing machine.

Pilato, the wife of former Bound Brook Republican Mayor Carey Pilato, was upset because (allegedly) some employees of the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission were making the seemingly routine task a four week bureaucratic nightmare.

Christie answers questions on his weekly radio program
The governor vowed, live on the air, that he would personally help resolve her situation, and he did.

True to his word, the next morning at 11am, Christie accompanied the frustrated mom and her son Ike to the South Plainfield branch of the MVC and of course, the teen quickly got a replacement leaner's permit without a problem.

Now it was certainly considerate of Christie to help these folks straighten this issue out, but I was skeptical.

It struck me as opportunistic.

Especially given that Christie has been under fire by both Republicans and Democrats in recent weeks for an ongoing political conflict with Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D) Seacaucus and other Democratic Assembly members over a controversial Christie-backed proposed state takeover of Atlantic City - which is facing an epic budgetary crisis fueled by a combination of poor city management, lower tax revenues and plunging revenue from AC's rapidly-declining casino industry.

After the disastrous takeover of the city of Flint, Michigan by Republican Governor Rick Snyder and a Republican-led state legislation, Christie's push to solve the budget crisis in Atlantic City by using a state takeover is a questionable move given the nearly unanimous bipartisan support for a solution that would give the embattled New Jersey city two years to draft a more permanent fix with the input of state and local leaders.

Christie has also faced bipartisan push back over his refusal to authorize $3 million in additional emergency funding to the city of Newark to begin intensive testing for high levels of lead found in the pipes of some city schools.

Newark Mayor Baraka testifies in front of the NJ Assembly
City officials including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who's testified in front of the NJ state Assembly in Trenton about the lead issue in his city's public schools, wanted emergency funding from the state.

Especially given the crisis situation in Flint, Michigan, but Christie kicked the can into the Democratic-majority Assembly, arguing that additional funds needed to be voted on by the Assembly.

Christie has since yielded some ground on both issues, and he's now calling for the NJ state legislature to approve $10 million to test all New Jersey public schools for lead poisoning starting this fall and make the results available to the public - the governor's approval of $10 million seems generous.

But when viewed in light of the fact that investigations by journalists have shown that up to $50 million has been taken from a fund established back in 1978 to protect children from lead poisoning, he still kicked the can on that one to a degree.

Especially considering that his proposal mandates that individual school districts must first pick up the tab for testing their schools, THEN apply to the state to be reimbursed - with lead testing costs projected to reach into the billions in New Jersey, Christie's solution strikes me as textbook political shell-game chicanery.

According to the May newsletter of the NJ chapter of the Sierra Club, two elementary schools in the Hamilton area where I live, Morgan Elementary and Greenwood Elementary, were recently found to have levels of lead in their water sources considered unacceptable by federal standards.

But Christie has always been motivated by what he thinks is best for his own political reputation.

Which, in light of the pressure he's facing in the state on the Atlantic City takeover issue and the lead testing debacle, leads me to see his decision to personally escort the wife of a former Republican Mayor to the MVC to help her get her son a replacement learner's permit as calculated political theater intended to boost his sagging popularity in the state.

Christie is shrewd enough to know that the NJ DMV, as the current MVC used to be known, has been a sore spot with Garden State residents for years who largely viewed it as a clutzy, poorly run bureaucracy typified by agonizingly slow lines and horrible customer service by state employees who's emotions when dealing with customers varied between complete disinterest coupled with contempt, to alarming anger as they seemed to actually seek out ways to make people's experience as miserable as humanly possible.

So the state changed the name of the DMV to the MVC in an attempt to re-brand it as a new model of state efficiency.

Christie's personal MVC intervention on behalf of Mrs. Pilato and her son Ike, and his subsequent  public announcement that all MVC employees will go through additional customer service training, just happened to coincide with my own vehicle registration expiring at the end of April.

The Baker's Basin MVC in Lawrenceville, NJ
Between filing my taxes, working on a 5th draft of my graphic novel script and an uptick in people searching for apartments, my April was a meat-grinder of a month.

I put off driving over to my local branch of the MVC, the Baker's Basin branch in Lawrenceville (pictured left), to get my registration renewed in person until the last minute.

Since I was more than a little skeptical about Christie theatrically sweeping into the MVC to help the wife of a former Republican Mayor, I thought I'd dust off my reporter skills (I used to write a local newspaper column and also worked as a TV reporter) and share my personal MVC experience on this blog.

The original dull-looking poorly lit Baker's Basin branch of the DMV where I go was demolished in recent years to coincide with the agency being re-branded as the MVC and replaced with the much nicer facility seen here.

You'll have to forgive my iPhone photo above, the overcast gray skies didn't really make for ideal photography conditions, but you get the picture (no pun intended).

Let me just say that last year I drove over to this MVC facility to transfer the title of a vehicle, get a new registration and get new license plates and I have to tell you that the folks I dealt with handled that trifecta of tax-revenue generating bureaucracy with surprising speed and efficiency.

In fact, I arrived about 20 minutes before closing on a Friday, and they actually let me stay a few minutes after closing while a no-nonsense African-American lady in her 50's and a fast-moving younger white woman in her 30's efficiently shuttled me back and forth between two windows while they got the title changed over to my name, a new registration issued and new plates - all in about 22 minutes.

I was impressed, it was a pretty tricky request by MVC standards and they handled it while being pleasant, patient and with a genuine desire to help me.

So knowing the kinds of comments Stacy Pilato had made to Christie, I was curious to see what my experience would be like when I arrived last Friday about 4pm.

Inside the Baker's Basin MVC
Knowing I was going to share the experience on the blog, I got out of vehicle, took the above picture of the exterior of the building, then started the stopwatch on my phone and walked inside.

It was Friday April 29th and it was pretty busy.

An older security guard in a uniform and a younger, casually dressed college-aged guy were at the small reception desk helping to steer people who came inside in the right direction and get them in the correct line.

If you look at the photo I took to the left, those double doors at the main entrance are right in front of the reception desk.

Now most of those people you see standing on either side of the door were waiting to get new licenses or learner's permits.

It's hard to see (you're not supposed to take photos in there so I had to be a little 007 with my picture taking...) but straight across along the glass wall people were standing waiting on line for new licenses and learner's permits.

There were two rows of benches over there and they were full.

If you're just renewing a registration like I was, it was a lot quicker. The two guys at the reception ask you what you're there to do, then they tap one of two touch-screens on either side of the reception desk and it prints out a small ticket with a letter and a number and you go sit or stand in the appropriate waiting area - registration and tags to the right, licenses and such to the left.

I walked to the right and took a seat where I snapped the photo above, pretty much all the people in front of me were waiting for registration renewals too.

Natural light & ticket screens in the MVC
Large color screens on the walls over the various help windows (which are all numbered) display the ticket number being helped, the next ticket on deck and a voice constantly calls out the next ticket number and tells you exactly which window to go to.

In defense of the afore-mentioned Stacy Pilato, I must say the lines for licenses and permits wasn't just long, the waits were up to two hours at some points. The guys at the reception area explained that to people walking in that the line was so long, they might be waiting two hours.

One young girl came in and was told of the wait for a new license and she loudly complained that she'd also stopped by two days before and was told the same thing - and she turned around and walked out in a huff as she stabbed at her cell phone angrily.

But the vast majority of people were pretty patient.

After waiting a few minutes and getting the rhythm of how quickly numbers actually get called, you could clearly see that the delays were not due to the inefficiency or lack of professionalism of the MVC employees; there was just a ***load of people there waiting to get service.

And the wait wasn't that bad, if you look at the other photo above, you can clearly see the screens on the right above the windows where everyone can see the tickets being served, plus the overhead skylight lets in natural light and it just makes it more pleasant while you're sitting there.

My ticket number was eventually called, I walked over to window number 11, handed a woman wearing glasses my registration card and driver's license, swiped my Visa card for $46.50, she printed out my registration, I signed the receipt and I was walking out of there about 90 seconds later.

I got in my car and stopped the stopwatch on my phone, the whole thing took 25 minutes and 51 seconds - that's not bad considering how busy it was, plus it was Friday.

So I'm not going to judge Stacey Pilato's experience at the South Plainfield MVC branch and maybe she did need the governor to walk her in to get her son Ike a replacement learner's permit, I don't know.

But the requirements for what you need to have with you when you go to the MVC are clearly listed on the Website, my sense was that a lot of people who go in to get driver's licenses or learner's permits simply aren't prepared for how many people are waiting to get the same thing.

Did Mrs. Pilato go to the MVC and decide she just didn't want to wait two hours to get the permit and get frustrated and walk out like the girl in a huff I described above?

Who knows.

Mission Accomplished! Ike Pilato thanks the Governor
Was it easier for Christie to take time out of his day to go to the South Plainfield MVC branch and help Mrs. Pilato get her son a replacement learner's permit than it was for him to let the air out of his political ego and make a deal with the Assembly Speaker and the legislature to authorize state funds to test the drinking water for lead content in the thousands of public schools across the state?

Apparently so.

Helping the wife of a former Republican Mayor go to the MVC then using the publicity to announce new customer service training for all MVC employees strikes me as low-hanging fruit; and how much will all that extra training cost the tax payers of New Jersey anyway?

I certainly don't see Christie raising a stink in the press paying for this new customer service training the way he is over coming up with funds to test the drinking water in public schools for toxic levels of lead.

Regardless the timing seems to have worked out for Christie, Mrs. Pilato and her son Ike - if he took that kind of initiative to solve the bigger problems in the state that affect millions of people, like starting the new Hudson River transit tunnel project, working with the local and state legislature to address the budget crisis in Atlantic City, or testing the drinking water, imagine the kinds of things he could accomplish.

He wouldn't need to bash Marco Rubio, Donald Trump or anyone else to win the Republican nomination for president; he'd be a shoo in.

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