Embattled DMV commissioner resigns

January 21, 2016

Neil Vigdor and Brian Lockhart

Connecticut’s beleaguered motor vehicles commissioner has resigned, taking the fall for an agency fraught with customer service complaints over long lines, suspended registrations and software glitches.
Andres Ayala Jr., a former state senator from Bridgeport and the first Latino commissioner under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, survived just over a year on the job.

He oversaw the highly controversial rollout of a driver’s license program for undocumented immigrants and the much-maligned computer upgrades at the state DMV, a $63 million operation with 650 employees.
“Although this past year has been challenging, I worked diligently to bring about the necessary changes to the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Ayala wrote Malloy’s chief of staff, Brian Durand, on Tuesday.
Malloy thanked Ayala, 46, for his service in a brief statement Wednesday that avoided mention of the agency’s woes and the public’s fury toward the DMV.

“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. “I want to thank him for his service and for his unwavering dedication to improving our state.”

The DMV’s loudest critics immediately speculated that Ayala, a political appointee with scant management experience, was forced out of his $160,000-a-year post.

“It may not have been a personal choice,” said state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton.

Boucher, who is ranking member of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said she spoke last week with her former colleague about the direction of the agency.
“He was sounding very hopeful at the time that somehow they would work through all the problems and that someday they would become a 21st century DMV,” Boucher said. “However, you could tell this is a person who was under a tremendous amount of pressure, stress and duress.”

Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia disputed the notion that Ayala, who served in the state House before the Senate, was shoved out. The governor’s office did not give a timetable for replacing Ayala, whose resignation takes effect Friday.
Ayala might not be out of a job for long, as Bridgeport school officials confirmed the former longtime social studies teacher has been on a leave of absence from the district and is at the top of a waiting list for an open position in his area of instruction.

The Ayala name is synonymous with Bridgeport politics. Ayala is a former City Council president. His aunt is the Democratic registrar of voters in the state’s largest city. His uncle is a power broker in the party.

When Ayala made the jump from the state House to the Senate, his cousin, Christina Ayala, filled his old seat. Her tenure was clouded by an elections-fraud scandal and personal controversies. It came to an end in 2014, when she was defeated in the Democratic primary by Christopher Rosario, a friend of Andres Ayala.

“I’m kind of shocked,” Rosario said of Ayala’s resignation. “I understand he was going through a difficult time. I don’t think everything was his fault. Whether municipal or state jobs, we’re all tasked to do a difficult job with minimal resources.”
Ayala’s seat started to get warm last summer, when the DMV replaced its 40-year-old computer system with new software. The transition was anything but seamless, with the DMV closing most of its non-licensing offices for four days last August. When they reopened, irate customers encountered waits of up to seven hours.

At the time, Malloy, campaigning in New Hampshire for Hillary Clinton, pressed Ayala for an update on the turmoil.
“What’s going on? How are we doing?” Malloy asked by phone.

Ayala told Malloy that 32 percent of transactions processed since the changeover could have been done by computer. Malloy said the situation was improving, but acknowledged more could be done to steer people to self-service stations.
“That’s a generational thing,” Malloy said at the time. “I know how hard you guys are working.”
Ayala’s woes were recently compounded when an untold number of motor vehicle registrations were wrongly suspended for lack of insurance — even though drivers had provided the required documentation. The blunder was blamed on a computer system backlog.

As a state senator in 2013, Ayala joined fellow Democrats in a party-line vote to give undocumented immigrants a mechanism for obtaining driver’s licenses, a controversial program he oversaw as DMV commissioner. Critics say the DMV under Ayala’s leadership underestimated the number of participants in the program, which contributed to processing backlogs and lengthy waits for driving tests.
“They, in fact, were being put at the head of the line,” Boucher said.
Malloy’s administration has prided itself in the diversity of its appointees, including Ayala, whose parents came from Puerto Rico. He replaced Melody Currey, who now heads the state Department of Administrative Services.

“We in the Latino community were very proud to have a Latino commissioner,” said Lydia Martinez, Bridgeport’s city clerk and a former state representative.

Martinez said the DMV’s problems are more likely systemic and existed before Ayala’s arrival.
“Did somebody leave a hot potato for him?” Martinez said.

Americo Santiago, a prominent Democrat who previously ran some of Ayala’s campaigns, defended his longtime ally.
“I think he’s the fall guy, to be honest with you,” Santiago said. “He hasn’t talked to me, but I know how the system works. I’ve been around those people too many years.”

Ayala’s resignation comes a week after the Hartford Courant called for his ouster in an editorial and two days after the newspaper requested access to the personnel file of one of Ayala’s aides from Bridgeport under the Freedom of Information Act. That employee, Carlos Cosme, served as Ayala’s legislative aide before being hired by the DMV.
Criminal records show Cosme has been arrested multiple times on charges of buying cocaine, grand theft, drug possession with intent to sell, probation violation, first-degree unlawful restraint, resisting arrest, violation of a protective order and third-degree assault.

Cosme remains employed by the DMV and his status will be determined by Ayala’s successor, according to the state.