Editorial: Shameful it took a tragedy for the RMV to do its job

  • In this July 6, 2019, file photo, motorcyclists participate in a ride in Randolph, N.H., to remember seven bikers killed there in a collision with a pickup truck in June. Paul Hayes/Caledonian-Record via AP

Published: 9/13/2019 5:23:03 PM
Modified: 9/13/2019 5:22:52 PM

Rather like The Phone Company in the satirical film classic “The President’s Analyst,” the Registry of Motor Vehicles is something everyone in Massachusetts, no matter their social, political or philosophical stripe, can agree to hate.

Endless waits in the office, bureaucratic snafus, online obfuscation — there’s no shortage of reasons to disparage the government bureau that controls our driving privileges.

Unfortunately, we now know that responsibility is something the RMV has failed to take seriously.

In the wake of a horrendous chain collision June 21 in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, in which a pickup towing an empty trailer reportedly crossed the center line and plowed into a line of oncoming motorcyclists, killing seven, it transpired that the Massachusetts driver now charged with negligent homicide in the case should have had his commercial driving privileges revoked weeks before.

That he continued to drive after being arrested earlier this year on suspicion of being intoxicated in a Connecticut Walmart parking lot is the fault of the RMV. After initially trying to blame Connecticut for not forwarding all the necessary information about the driver’s arrest, registry officials fessed up: The violation was buried, along with thousands of others, in a pile of unprocessed paperwork.

As RMV officials had already bluntly acknowledged among themselves, the registry no longer had time for making sure that Massachusetts drivers who break the law while driving in other states face the consequences back home.

Prodded into action by an outraged public, the agency somehow managed to find the time. Registry personnel worked through the backlog of tens of thousands of notifications over a few weeks this summer, leading to license suspensions for more than 2,400 Massachusetts drivers.

Even though Registrar Erin Deveney resigned days after the initial revelation of the RMV’s failure, registry supervisors’ response to the fallout has betrayed a bureaucratic sluggishness and a failure to take responsibility.

Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, was out front in calling for Thomas Bowes, director of the unit responsible for dealing with out-of-state notifications, to step down. Bowes, who declined to cut short his European vacation to face the music in July, was not fired until three weeks ago.

In late July, the co-chairs of the Legislature’s transportation committee wrote a scathing letter to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack saying they were “losing confidence” in the Baker administration’s willingness to fully cooperate with their investigation into the RMV’s lapses.

Pollack has said that she knew nothing about the three-year backlog of out-of-state reports at an agency she’s supposed to oversee. But, as the Boston Globe has detailed, records turned over to the committee detail numerous communications between RMV and DOT officials concerning the unprocessed violations.

To take one example, a memo dated Oct. 7, 2016, from RMV officials Deveney, Bowes and Keith Constantino, addressed to “Office of the Governor — legal department/MassDOT legal department,” sought approval to transfer responsibility for a backlog of out-of-state citations to the Merit Review Board.

Pollack’s explanation? The memo was a “draft” and there’s no record of it ever being sent to its intended recipients.

In April, an auditor for the Department of Transportation issued a memo warning officials of 12,829 unprocessed notices from other states. The auditor said she communicated this to Deveney and Bowes, and also briefed her supervisor. But Pollack said she knew nothing about the audit findings, because they were preliminary, not final.

For his part, Gov. Charlie Baker has said he was unaware that the RMV was not dealing with key warnings from other states until the day Deveney resigned.

As others have noted, it’s remarkable, even incredible, how this critical information somehow failed to find its way up the bureaucratic ladder.

Lesser and many other lawmakers aren’t satisfied that officials have been forthcoming about the problem, and nor should they be. The administration should cut out the dodging and weaving and give the public a full accounting of exactly who did know and why they did nothing about it.

As Rep. William Straus, D-Bristol, the co-chair of the Joint Transportation Committee, said, “What has troubled me about the whole inquiry from the start is that, if there hadn’t been a tragedy, we wouldn’t know how badly things were operating at the Registry.”

It should not have taken such a terrible loss of life to get a government agency to do its job.

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