Working to fulfill Governor Charlie Baker’s campaign promise to shorten the lines at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, state officials gave the initiative a name that evoked a life-and-death struggle. And the “War on Wait Times” did not go unwatched.
Baker’s inner circle received daily reports on how quickly branches turned over customers. His top aide repeatedly prodded the Registry’s leadership on dips in wait-time performance or gaps in the data. And one of his deputy chiefs of staff offered input on details as minute as where a logo goes on a Registry Web page, according to hundreds of pages of e-mails obtained by the Globe.
The intense focus that Baker’s office put on Registry queues is now inviting its own scrutiny after the agency failed for years to perform another crucial duty: tracking alerts from other states about law-breaking Massachusetts drivers.
The years of e-mails between top Baker aides and then-Registrar Erin Deveney did not include any discussion about the decision to ignore the out-of-state notifications — supporting Baker’s assertion that he and his office were not told about the problem before a deadly crash in New Hampshire pushed it into public view.
But the cache of documents is fueling questions from Democratic lawmakers about how the Republican administration could have been so deeply enmeshed in the Registry’s pursuit of a more nimble, customer-service-driven operation and yet unaware of a catastrophic breakdown at the same agency.
“That level of detail and coordination — to have the governor’s most senior aides asking about logo placement — shows there was quite a lot of coordination and synchronization,” said Senator Eric P. Lesser, the second-ranking Senate Democrat on the Joint Committee on Transportation.
“Fixing the wait times was a worthy goal and a goal the Legislature supported, and a goal everybody wants,” he said. “But the big question is whether other priorities were shortchanged. How could they have been so focused and so in the weeds on so much of the RMV and leave such a gaping hole with this vital public safety question?”
Baker and his transportation secretary have said they did not learn the Registry’s Merit Rating Board was not processing the safety alerts, as required, until late June.
That’s when Deveney resigned, after admitting the agency should have stripped a West Springfield man of his license before he allegedly crashed into and killed seven people on a New Hampshire highway.
“The hundreds of e-mails provided to the Globe between the governor’s office and the registrar support this finding,” said Lizzy Guyton, a spokeswoman for the governor.
That Baker’s office was more involved with the Registry than with some other agencies, Guyton said, was sensible: The Registry touches most Massachusetts residents, and its customer service performance was “abysmal.” She said the office regularly focuses on other projects, too, including at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Department of Children and Families.
“The administration made serving [Registry] customers one of several priorities after taking office in 2015,” she said.
The Globe requested several years’ worth of e-mails between Deveney and Baker’s deputy chief of staff, Mindy d’Arbeloff, the governor’s longtime friend whom Deveney testified was a point of contact in the governor’s office. In response, the Department of Transportation provided nearly 500 pages to both the Globe and the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which has made its own document requests as it investigates the agency.
The records underscore how Baker’s office trained a strict eye, and a guiding hand, on the Registry’s efforts to slash wait times after Baker made the pitch to voters, including on the eve of his election. The agency’s 32-page plan, dated June 2016, outlined changes the Registry had made to whisk customers through branches, from overhauling the management structure of its service centers and creating daily reports on the progress to shifting “to be more service delivery focused.”
And, by the administration’s measure, it worked: By November 2015 — 10 months after Baker took office — 74 percent of customers were being served in under 30 minutes. And even as chaos consumed the Registry in June, the measure was up to 87 percent in the fiscal year that ended that month.
All the while, Baker’s office rarely seemed out of step with the Registry’s customer-service mission. In June 2016, d’Arbeloff — who oversees customer service for Baker’s office and is married to his education secretary, James Peyser — sent an e-mail scolding Registry staff. She noted that “we have talked many times” about tracking so-called high-volume times at the branches, after an official sent an e-mail warning of a potential flood of summer customers.
“We shouldn’t have to be surprised by stuff like this,” she wrote.
As the Registry was preparing to roll out a new website the next month, d’Arbeloff, a former marketing executive, sent Deveney a lengthy e-mail making recommendations about branding and the site’s public launch, in which she referenced New York state’s website.
“I love MyRMV,” d’Arbeloff said of the website name, one of 16 bullet-pointed questions and suggestions she sent, “but I don’t like the logo/icon — I LOVE New York’s – as well as their page. I also think ours is not well placed on the Website — too small — too hard to recognize.”
That type of detailed suggestion extended elsewhere. As Deveney was preparing a presentation on the launching of systemwide software in February 2018, d’Arbeloff sent Deveney’s deputy registrar an e-mail proposing that she substitute a single slide. She also attached a recommended replacement.
Representative William Straus, cochair of the Transportation Committee, said he was struck by the level of direction, given that he views the role of the governor’s office as providing “broad policy supervision.”
“She seems to function in her directions to the registrar of motor vehicles as something of a shadow registrar herself,” Straus said. He later added, “It really shows you what they thought was important.”
Baker’s aides rejected that characterization, saying d’Arbeloff was never involved with the Registry’s day-to-day operations. But they said she was “deeply involved” in some of its projects, such as the “War on Wait Times” and addressing the abuse of handicap placards — as well as customer service projects at other agencies.
Baker’s office said d’Arbeloff never worked with the Merit Rating Board.
“Mindy spent a portion of her time focused exclusively on customer-facing functions of the Registry,” Guyton said.
Deveney did not respond to a request for comment.
Registry officials have admitted they must “reprioritize” the agency’s public safety responsibilities, but they argue that, since 2016, staff and budgets have increased throughout the agency, and not just for “customer-facing” jobs.
“MassDOT has repeatedly emphasized that safety must be a top priority,” said spokesman Patrick Marvin.
The RMV has suspended the licenses of more than 5,200 Massachusetts drivers as part of the review it began after the New Hampshire crash.
But supervision of the Registry’s progress on wait times didn’t rest only with d’Arbeloff.
When a Registry aide sent several officials a copy of a “daily snapshot” of wait times at RMV branches in March 2017, Steve Kadish — then Baker’s chief of staff, responsible for helping to manage the 42,000-employee executive department — replied in an hour, questioning the progress.
“What’s up?” he wrote. “The performance recently has not hit the level we have become used to.”
Two months later, Kadish e-mailed Deveney, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, and others shortly after 6 a.m. on a Friday, saying he had stopped receiving the daily report on wait times altogether.
“I am hearing anecdotes of performance slipping,” he later wrote.
Kadish told the Globe it wasn’t unusual for him to receive daily updates about an “improvement effort” at a particular agency, be it the MBTA amid the record-setting winter of 2015 or the state’s Health Connector — two other agencies where Baker had pledged turnarounds.
“In all these examples, things did improve and more work remains,” Kadish said in an e-mail to the Globe.
Kadish said Deveney never raised the problems at the Merit Rating Board with him.
“If it had come up,” he said, “I would have insisted that it be addressed.”