What's Going On At The Department Of Consumer Affairs?

Law Talk

Sam K. Abdulaziz
Attorney at Law

I attended a Contractors' State License Board meeting on February 16, 2006. The friction resulting from the actions and statements from a representative from the Department of Consumer Affairs seemed entirely out of place.

Chastising the Board at a public meeting is not appropriate. This is especially true when the Board is blindsided by the subject matter of what is being chastised.

The representative from the Department of Consumer Affairs stated that the administration has decided that the Department of Consumer Affairs' priority is customer service. They are focusing on what the Department of Consumer Affairs is doing to help consumers. The Department is also rolling out and defining what customer service was received. Were the questions answered? Are the customers just getting answers or did they get what they needed and sought?

The Department set up a "Secret Shopper" to make calls. According to the representative, the CSLB turned out to be on the bottom 1/3 of boards and bureaus in time to get answers and/or being caught in a loop. Significantly, no one had provided the Board with any information regarding the results of their survey prior to the meeting. The Department promised to work with the CSLB to get this worked out.

First, the CSLB has just implemented a new telephone response system. I do not know if that is going to cure the problem. However, I would suspect that the Department has some idea concerning this, but the idea was not voiced. Secondly, everyone knows that the Board had a severe staffing problem in the recent past as a result of a hiring freeze after they had lost people. At the same time, the Board was implementing a substantial fingerprinting requirement. Neither was mentioned. Lastly, this public chastising is not the kind of thing you do in an open meeting. This is the kind of thing that you do face to face. One wonders why it was done at an open meeting.

If I were going to make such statements, I certainly would make them with some indication of the job that the Board and staff is otherwise doing. Every area of work that could be enhanced has been - enforcement, licensing, public affairs- the important things the Board does and does so well. If you have followed the board you know how much better all programs have been operating. It appears that that is not important to the Department, or at least their representative.

Significantly, the representative of the Department, stayed at the meeting throughout and did not hesitate to jump up and give her point of view on various issues. I guess she thought it was her meeting and not that of the Board.

One person from the audience with a pending application said that it has taken him five months and he still does not know what is going on with his application. It appears that the application is at the Department of Justice wherein they are attempting to determine whether there has been any disclosable criminal convictions. The applicant stated that he had some problems when he was a minor, but that was many, many years ago. He wanted to know what was going on and was being told that the CSLB personnel did not know. He was told that his application was at the Department of Justice.

The fingerprinting issue was discussed by the Board at the meeting. Much of the information was misinformation. Significantly, the fingerprinting holdup is typically at the Department of Justice. That is not to say that the Department of Justice is dragging its feet. However, if the Department of Justice has some indication that there is a disclosable criminal conviction, and it is not something that is readily available to them, the Department of Justice must go through physical files or whatever other means to determine what, if anything, should be disclosed. This went on and on during the Board meeting. The representative from the Department of Consumer Affairs, who has to know that this is a common theme, did not step up and say that this is not the Contractors' Board problem, it is a fingerprinting problem that is effecting a number of boards, bureaus, agencies in her own Department and the Department of Justice. One wonders why this was not brought to the fore by the representative.

Another difference of opinion between the Contractors' Board and the representative of the Department of Consumer Affairs came up dealt with a "Finance Letter." A Finance Letter is a request by the Board for additional personnel and/or funds. A Finance Letter includes justification for the approval of the request. The Contractors' Board asked for additional personnel as a result of some of the manpower requirements resulting from the new fingerprinting program. The Finance Letter was denied. The representative of the Department of Consumer Affairs stated that the denial was based on the fact that the Contractors' Board had vacant positions and they would not get more people as long as they still had vacant positions that they had not yet filled. This would seem logical at first blush. However, given the fact that staff turnover is normal in any large organization, even at the Contractors' Board, there will always be vacant positions. The logic upon which the statement is made was flawed. This means that with the advent of additional work resulting from the new requirements imposed on the Board, other necessary functions will not be accomplished. In fact the Department of Finance builds in an expected vacancy rate of 5%, which is right where the CSLB is. The Board must make some hard decisions regarding fingerprinting and the Finance Letter. Either the Board can convince the Administration that more staff is needed now to process applications, or it will have to resubmit a request for next year, or it will have to make cuts in other areas like enforcement or answering phones.

It is significant to note that the representative from the Department hinted that if the Board went to the Department of Finance, there might be some retribution. What this means is that the Contractors' Board should do nothing to try and alleviate a problem that it has. It was my understanding the Department of Consumer Affairs was supposed to help the boards fulfill their mission. After all CSLB pays the Department millions in what is called pro rata every year to pay for the operation of the Department. I don't think they are getting their money's worth from what I saw at the meeting.

Does anyone wonder how our government survives?