DMV Commissioner Ayala Resigns After Year Of Problems

January 21, 2016

Jon Lender

Andres Ayala Jr. has submitted his resignation as Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner after a nightmarish year of problems — including snafus with a new computer system, a tripling of wait times for DMV customers, erroneous revocation of drivers’ vehicle registrations and the release of false information to the public.

Ayala Tuesday night submitted notice to the office of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that he was resigning effective Friday from the $160,000-a-year job, little more than a year after Malloy named the 46-year-old former social studies teacher and one-term Democratic state senator from Bridgeport as his first Latino commissioner.

After initially declining comment Wednesday morning, Malloy’s office confirmed at midday that Ayala is leaving.

“The Commissioner is a dedicated public servant to Connecticut, and I appreciate all of the work he’s done in so many different capacities both at the local and state levels,” Malloy said in a statement. “I want to thank him for his service and for his unwavering dedication to improving our state.”

Word of Ayala’s impending departure came two days after The Courant submitted a freedom of information request and questions on a subject that might have become the latest political headache involving the beleaguered commissioner: The hiring of a fellow Bridgeport resident — who pleaded guilty in 2006 of felony drug charges in Superior Court and served time in prison — as a $36,000-a-year office assistant at DMV.

The aide, Carlos Cosme, 39, worked for two years as a $40,000 staff member of the state Democratic Senate Caucus, starting in January 2013, and then switched to DMV in early 2015 when Ayala arrived at the agency.

Cosme initially was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2006 on charges of possession of drugs with intent to sell, but that term was reduced and he was released in 2009 to supervised parole that ended in 2011, records show. Cosme was not available for comment Wednesday.

Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia said there are “no plans to rescind” Cosme’s hiring, but added that Ayala’s successor “will make decisions about his or her appointed staff.” There was no word on who might be appointed to replace Ayala or when.

Ayala declined to be interviewed Wednesday. But Malloy’s office later released his Tuesday resignation letter to gubernatorial Chief of Staff Brian Durand, in which he said, in part: “Although this past year has been challenging I worked diligently to bring about the necessary changes to the Department of Motor Vehicles.” Those, he wrote, included running a new program approved by the legislature to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and “the modernization of our computer system, the single largest change the [DMV] has implemented in over 40 years.”

But those changes wrecked Ayala’s tenure as commissioner.

Ayala was re-elected in 2014 to a second term in the Senate, but gave up the seat in December 2014 to become DMV commissioner. A year filled with turbulence at the agency and anger on the part of the taxpaying public followed.

Ayala’s first big problem arose in July, when he had to issue a public apology for a July 10 email from one of his department’s key units. The email falsely told driving school operators that the new program to license undocumented immigrants as drivers wasn’t causing increases of many months in wait times for scheduling driver tests for legal residents.

The DMV email directed school operators not to blame the delays on the new program for the immigrants — when, in fact, the opposite was true. Ayala admitted that, contrary to what the July 10 email said, the longer waiting times were a direct result of an “onslaught” of applications from undocumented immigrants.
“Unfortunately … I probably should have looked at it a little bit closer,” Ayala said about the email, which he said had been produced under the supervision of Lynn Blackwell, the DMV’s $119,397-a-year division chief for licensing. The email was submitted for Ayala’s approval before it was sent.

Then came a weeklong shutdown of most DMV services to the public in August so the department could convert to a supposedly more efficient computer system provided by 3M Co. costing $25 million — a project that Ayala inherited from Melody Currey, his predecessor as commissioner. Malloy named Currey commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services in January 2015.

When the DMV reopened after the computer switchover, there was near chaos — with long lines at DMV branches that never seemed to move. Outrage grew.
Ayala said steps were being taken to work out bugs in the new system and departmental procedures — “It is critical that we be faster and more responsive to customers because they deserve no less” — but average wait times tripled at many DMV branches from September 2014 to September 2015, from half an hour to more than an hour and a half.

The waits began to diminish by the end of the year, but the next blow came on Jan. 7, when Ayala found himself again apologizing, this time for the revocation of some drivers’ vehicle registrations for supposedly not having insurance.

He promised to make changes, saying the DMV would immediately stop sharing with police a flawed list of registration suspensions for insurance compliance issues. Because of a backlog of paperwork, some drivers’ registrations were suspended even after they had sent proof of insurance to the DMV.
That meant drivers could be pulled over by police, ticketed and their cars towed, despite carrying adequate insurance.

“As you know, DMV has caused a major hardship and inconvenience for people whose registrations have been suspended when they actually had continuous vehicle insurance,” Ayala said.
Themis Klarides, House Republican leader, said at the time that legislators had heard complaints from constituents, including from a person whose car was impounded for days. She called for a legislative hearing on DMV during the General Assembly session that begins Feb. 3.

She stuck to that on Wednesday, even after she heard Ayala was leaving. “The chronic foul-ups that have plagued the [DMV] and created great hardship and angst for motorists continue to this day,” she said. “It is ever more critical that the [legislature’s] transportation committee conduct a thorough hearing and investigation as soon as the legislative session convenes in two weeks.”

Another Republican lawmaker, Toni Boucher of Wilton, top-ranked Republican senator on the transportation committee, said, “This is indeed a sad day for the beleaguered DMV, their employees and their customers who continue to endure a series of problems.”

Ayala “tried his best and was a good state senator, but was new to this area of government,” Boucher said. “Unfortunately, the loss of leadership at the top of this organization could not have come at a worse time. The software system implementation that the CT DMV has embarked on is incomplete and the issues it has caused remain unresolved.”

She said Malloy’s office should “conduct a search for individuals with the proper knowledge of the technical requirements necessary to bring the CT DMV into the 21st century. Rather than make a purely political appointment, the administration should do a nationwide search to find a commissioner that will be able to resolve the troubling issues currently plaguing the CT DMV.”