Editorial: Maldonado fends off DMV closure

Despite his recent loss at the polls, Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado came through big time last week by putting the brakes on a ridiculous plan to indefinitely shut down the Santa Maria office of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Closing the DMV office would have been a huge inconvenience for the more than 100,000 residents living in the greater Santa Maria area. It also could have meant even longer waits at the San Luis Obispo office of the DMV, since it was assumed that Santa Maria customers would instead trek to the San Luis Obispo and Lompoc offices.

Keep in mind, it can already take more than a month to get an appointment in San Luis Obispo, so no telling what the waits may have been had the Santa Maria DMV closed.

And don’t even get us started on how hypocritical it would have been for California — which touts itself as a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions — to force people into their cars for 60- or 70-mile round trips to the DMV.

Following the unveiling of this foolish plan, Maldonado spoke to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and to DMV officials. The DMV then re-evaluated and decided to reverse direction in Santa Maria, though it is moving forward with office closures in Hayward, Glendale and West Covina. That makes far more sense, since there are multiple DMV offices within reasonable distances of those communities.

Maldonado deserves a lot of credit for intervening on behalf of Central Coast residents, yet we’re wondering how this nutty proposal got the green light in the first place.

By way of background, a DMV spokesman said the decision to close offices was driven primarily by lack of staff. Due to the state’s hiring freeze, the agency has been unable to replace workers, and that’s left some locations severely understaffed. In Santa Maria, for example, the normal staff of 16 had dipped to eight.

Now that the Santa Maria office will remain open, the agency has received an exemption and will be allowed to hire three additional employees there, bringing the staff to 11.

Given the state’s financial miseries, we understand the need to keep employee costs as low as possible, and that may mean closing some state facilities or reducing hours of operation.

But shutting down a DMV office in one of the most populated cities on the Central Coast is beyond absurd. It’s either indicative of a bureaucracy woefully out of touch with realities that exist outside of major metropolitan areas — or one that no longer cares how it is going to affect people’s lives.

Either way, it’s time for Sacramento to change course. We can only hope a new administration will balance the need to cuts costs with a modicum of common sense.