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Embattled Director of DMV to Step Down : Government: Frank Zolin, criticized for costly computer snafu, cites differences with Wilson Administration.

October 11, 1995|VIRGINIA ELLIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Frank Zolin, the embattled director of the state Department of Motor Vehicles, who made the controversial decision to abandon a troubled $50-million computer project, abruptly resigned Tuesday, citing irreconcilable differences with top Wilson Administration officials.

In a three-page letter to Gov. Pete Wilson, Zolin said he was stepping aside as director of one of state government's largest and most visible agencies because of differences of opinion with Business, Transportation and Housing Secretary Dean Dunphy and Undersecretary Jeffrey Reid. The agency oversees the DMV.

He said his differences with Dunphy, a longtime personal friend of the governor, and Reid stemmed from disagreements over the approach to the "management and future direction of the department."

"It is time for me to leave," he said.

Zolin, 62, one of the first top administrators to be named by Wilson after his election as governor, became director of the department in March, 1991, after 22 years as executive officer of the Los Angeles County Superior Court system.

Zolin's resignation from his $103,000-a-year post is effective Dec. 1. A replacement has not been named.

In an interview, Zolin said he had not been pressured to resign but was leaving by "mutual agreement" with the governor's chief of staff, Bob White.

He declined to elaborate on the nature of his disagreements with Dunphy and Reid other than to say they had not been willing to move as quickly as he would have liked on revisions in the operation of the department.

Julie Stewart, a spokeswoman for the agency, said neither Dunphy nor Reid would have any comment "on what the differences of opinion regarding management approaches might have been." But, she said, Dunphy had always been open to the "advice and counsel of his directors."

One state official, who asked not to be identified, said Zolin had become increasingly frustrated with what he considered Reid's micromanagement and intrusion in the day-to-day affairs of the department.

"Zolin wanted to focus on customer services while the agency and Reid were more interested in downsizing and privatization," the official said.

Although Zolin was appointed with the understanding that he would reshape the department, his entire tenure as DMV director was overshadowed by a massive computer scandal.

When he took over the department it was already deeply involved in a multimillion-dollar effort to revamp and redesign its computer system. Zolin later said he learned very quickly that the project was in trouble, but tried over an 18-month period to save it.

Finally, in December, 1993, deciding the project design was "fundamentally flawed" he ordered it abandoned. By then the state had invested $50 million.

Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), who investigated the debacle and often criticized Zolin for not moving more quickly to pull the plug on the computer project, nevertheless gave him high marks for his management of the department.

"What he did was he ran the agency like an agency," Katz said. "He didn't use it for a lot of creative ideas, but what he tried to do was put some sound business footing under it."

Describing Zolin as a "good soldier" for the Wilson Administration, he said he was surprised at the circumstances of his leaving.

"He was the guy who kind of protected Wilson and the DMV," Katz said. "Whenever we tried to go higher in our investigation [of the computer snafu], Zolin always stepped into the line of fire. This is an interesting way to thank someone who soldiered for the Administration."

In his resignation letter, Zolin said he believed one of his most important accomplishments had been the improvement he brought to the department's customer service, although he acknowledged that budget constraints in 1994 and 1995 had increased some customer waiting times at field offices.

The DMV, which licenses 20 million drivers and registers 25 million vehicles, has more direct contact with the public than any other state department. Officials estimate it has 65 million public contacts a year and that 88% of the state's population must deal with the DMV each year.

Zolin said he planned to take some time off and then seek new employment in January.

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