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License to Spend 

Fair Game

Published January 18, 2012 at 11:39 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The Department of Motor Vehicles is already synonymous with really long waits. But even by those standards, an unfolding fiasco inside the Vermont DMV is turning into a painfully drawn out — and expensive — affair.

Fair Game has learned that over the past six years, the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles has shelled out $18 million for a new computer system that today is barely usable. The launch of the new VT Driver & Registration Information & Verification Enterprise System — VT DRIVES — is three years overdue and millions over budget.

The latest contract extension expires on February 28, and according to DMV Commissioner Robert Ide, there’s no way the system will be ready by that date. Ide says the state may have no choice but sue the company building it, Hewlett-Packard, to recoup the money.

“There’s a catastrophic failure within the code as it’s written today,” Ide says. “Hewlett-Packard is saying that with modifications they can make it work, and we are unconvinced that that is in fact true.”

How in heck did DMV spend $18 million with little or nothing to show for it? It’s a slightly convoluted story, but Ide insists that the DMV is not to blame.

As Ide recounts, construction on VT DRIVES started in 2006 and was supposed to take three years to complete. The goal was to replace the DMV’s 40-year-old computer system with a modern one that updates driver data in real time.

“If a person were to pay a traffic fine online, it would not show up in our records right away. There would be a lag,” Ide explains by way of example. “So if you paid your fine and assumed [your license was] reinstated and you went out and you were stopped by law enforcement, that officer would think you were suspended. On-time information is mandatory in today’s world.”

Hewlett-Packard didn’t actually bid on the contract to build VT DRIVES. Rather, it inherited the job from Electronic Data Systems, the company founded by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, as part of a corporate acquisition. In fact, HP is the fourth company to hold the VT DRIVES contract; each assumed ownership of the job as part of a corporate takeover.

Ide says the new system isn’t a total bust. Some parts are usable, such as a program for issuing enhanced driver’s licenses. But Ide estimates VT DRIVES is operating at “10 percent or less” of what it was designed to do. That’s after DMV paid multiple millions to Hewlett-Packard and its predecessors, plus $1.3 million (almost twice the $750,000 budgeted) to a “quality control” vendor in Colchester and $4.2 million (more than twice the $1.8 million budgeted) for DMV staff time working on the system. Total price tag for the barely operational system: $18 million.

Ide is talking tough, but the state has not initiated legal action. “We’re very confident there will be a settlement, and we will get a great deal of that money back — if not all, or more,” Ide says. “The State of Vermont feels at this point in time that HP owes us either a system or a great deal of money.”

HP doesn’t exactly sound ready to settle. Company media relations manager Ericka Floyd emailed a two-paragraph statement saying, “The delay is unfortunate; however, it is necessary to deliver a high-quality customized system and to implement additional changes as well as functionality that have been requested by the state.”

The statement goes on, “HP is committed to working with the state to achieve the goal of modernizing Vermont’s DMV. In order to accomplish this, HP is fully focused on addressing the remaining technical issues, implementing the additional functionality requested and testing the application to bring the project to a timely completion.”

A little late for a “timely completion,” dontcha think?

Communications Breakdown

For a guy who hired two press secretaries upon taking office, Gov. Peter Shumlin sure has a strong allergy to “communications” people.

As first reported on the Seven Days staff blog, Blurt, this week, Team Shumlin nixed plans to hire two communications coordinators — for two different state agencies — and pressured a supposedly “independent” health care reform board to yank an advertisement requesting public relations services.

Shumlin came into office promising to rid state government of the press secretaries that populated agencies under his predecessor, Republican Jim Douglas, whose payroll of appointed communications directors topped $400,000. Shumlin appointed two people to handle press for his own office — former WCAX reporter Bianca Slota and former Howard Dean aide and Times Argus editor Susan Allen — but state agencies did remain largely free of new flacks.

So imagine Fair Game’s surprise when we opened the Seven Days classified section last week and saw one employment ad looking for a “communications coordinator” at the Agency of Natural Resources and another seeking a “director of communications” at the Department of Tourism and Marketing.

In addition, the Green Mountain Care Board, the panel devising the governor’s universal health care plan, has set aside $50,000 to hire a public relations professional to “build public confidence in our process and decisions,” and “inform the public of actions of the GMCB.”

Asked about the seeming double-standard, Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding responded swiftly. Very swiftly. In fact, it almost seemed a little knee-jerk.

Spaulding said the governor was “about as angry and frustrated as I’ve heard him” about the job postings and ordered “the immediate and full stop” to the two agency job postings pending a review. On top of that, Shumlin asked the Green Mountain Care Board to withdraw its bid for public relations help.

“He’s made it clear individually and through me to the cabinet on multiple occasions that he does not want PR spin-doctor communicator positions in state government,” said Spaulding.

Apparently, some members of Team Shumlin didn’t get the memo.

The ANR position paid $38,000 a year and was a classified position, meaning it would have fallen under a union contract. The tourism and marketing job, by contrast, was an “exempt” position — a political appointment — and paid $50,000 a year to someone who could “generate positive tourism-related coverage of Vermont in the national and international marketplace,” according to the ad. Erica Housekeeper recently vacated the job to take a position at Fletcher Allen Health Care.

Secretary of Commerce and Community Development Lawrence Miller said he approved the tourism communications job without thinking it would be controversial.

“It’s not the PR position that I think the governor’s thinking of,” Miller said. “I certainly think it’s a job that ought to be filled. It’s not to promote the agency, it’s to promote Vermont.”

Miller noted that the commerce agency did have an appointed communications director — Dave Mace — and the position was eliminated. Now, he said, agency staffers are directed to answer questions from the media.

As for the ANR job, Secretary Deb Markowitz insisted it was “an administrative assistant position that is designed to do a bunch of things.”

“I completely understand the governor’s concern with having government filled with PR positions, and I expect he’ll take a step back and take a look at what we’re trying to do and we may fine-tune some of the descriptive language,” Markowitz said.

Translation: The job will be filled. It just might be called something else.

Human resources commissioner Kate Duffy is now conducting a review of all jobs in state government that could be considered “communications” positions of the spin-doctor variety. Duffy said the state may even ask for outside assistance from someone with expertise in “good government,” such as the Snelling Center for Government.

Putting the kibosh on state job postings is one thing. Asking an “independent” health care panel to follow orders is quite another. After all, one reason the Green Mountain Care Board wanted PR help in the first place was to “develop and communicate a GMCB identity distinct from the State agencies and Legislature.” On Tuesday, the GMCB yielded to Shumlin and dropped plans for the PR contract.

Some declaration of independence.

The Cost of Democracy

Last fall’s four-way race to become Burlington’s Democratic nominee for mayor wasn’t only the closest in recent memory; it was one of the most expensive.

Candidates Tim Ashe, Jason Lorber, Miro Weinberger and Bram Kranichfeld collectively dropped more than $96,000 battling for the few hundred votes that would put them over the top.

In Burlington, candidates aren’t required to file campaign finance reports until 10 days before the March 8 election — well after any caucus campaigns are over and too late for most people to fully scrutinize who is bankrolling the candidates.

But in the interest of transparency, Lorber and Weinberger voluntarily made their filings public on their campaign websites. And at Fair Game’s request, Ashe and Kranichfeld supplied their fundraising figures: Kranichfeld shared his full report; Ashe gave just the totals.

Weinberger, who overcame Ashe to clinch the nomination in the final round of voting, led the pack, with $42,320 raised and $49,961 spent through the caucus. Lorber, who dropped out voluntarily after a poor showing in the first round of voting, was the second-biggest spender, with $26,386 raised and $21,404 spent. Ashe raised $17,036 and spent $17,352. Kranichfeld was the cheapskate, er, thrifty Yankee of the group, raising $10,479 and spending $7709.

That’s a lot of dough for just a few hundred votes. The math? Weinberger spent $76.27 for each of his 655 votes. Ashe’s 533 check marks cost him $32.55 per. Kranichfeld paid the least — $21.65 per vote — for his 356.

But Lorber takes the cake. The four-term state lawmaker and stand-up comic shelled out $21,404 for 106 votes — which works out to $201.92 per vote!

Nothing funny about that.

(Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.)

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About The Author

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2012, and the news editor from 2012-2013.


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