Back in October, I wrote about how the Madison DMV’s move to 8417 Excelsior Blvd could impact voting rights. Since then, others have been raising the issue as well.

At the October 26 meeting of the Dane County Board of Supervisors, they considered a resolution to call for suspension of the voter ID law, in light of surveys, by the Dane County Clerk and UW Madison, showing that voters had been disenfranchised by the voter ID law — whether by not having viable ID, or by thinking they didn’t have viable ID.

At the meeting, members of Indivisible Madison and the League of Women Voters spoke in favor of the resolution, and mentioned the DMV move. Al Matano, one of the county supervisors (coincidentally my own), mentioned that the issue would be brought up at the next meeting of the Transportation Planning Board, which he also chairs.

On November 15, the TPB sent a letter of complaint to the DOT, questioning the need for the move and the planned location. Rebecca Kemble, a city alder, is also working on a federal civil rights complaint about the issue.

Meanwhile, I had filed an Open Records Request, for any information the DOT had about how they selected the new location. After some initial miscommunication, on November 1, they sent me a DVD with about 200 emails and scanned documents. With some help from a member of LWV Dane County, we’ve been sorting through them, looking for what the process was, and where public transit access got lost.

Are you ready for the intricacies of state bureaucracy?

Act I: Writing the Request For Proposal

In August 2016, DOT employees put together a Request For Proposal document. It’s something that says what you’re shopping for, and how you’re going to decide what to buy. Once you publish it, it’s up to vendors to come to you, with offers that meet your criteria.

The RFP, eventually published on November 7, did list public transit accessibility as one of it’s criteria…somewhat. One of the strict criteria was “access to public modes of transportation, preferably a city or regional bus line, with stops several times a day.” Locations were also going to be given a score, in which public transit service would account for 3% of the total points. Three percent isn’t a lot, and it’s less than similar RFPs had allotted for that category.

In terms of location, the RFP requested the “West/Southwest side of City of Madison”, and included a map with a polygon roughly encompassing that area.

The draft RFP then went to Department of Administration for review. According to emails from the DOA point-person, DOT staff were resistant to the idea of including a map, and wanted to phrase the geographical requirement vaguely, so as to include areas like Fitchburg or Middleton.

DOA pressed them to include a perimeter. As of October 4, TPB provided a map showing areas with frequent bus service. The map ultimately included in the RFP mirrors the outer edges of that bus service map, but doesn’t take into account the fact that there as gaps in bus service within that perimeter.

Nevertheless, bus service was a consideration written into the Request For Proposal. In theory, if the process described in the RFP had been followed, bus service would have been a requirement for any potential location, and frequency of bus service would have been a differentiator.

Act II: The Request For Proposal Fails

According to the RFP, proposals were due on December 21, 2016. At that time, they had only received one proposal. It was from a developer offering to build a brand new building on Novation Way, at a cost that DOT didn’t consider serious.

They thought the lack of proposals was because they had been looking for a building to rent as of April 2018 (18 months out at that point). On March 14, 2017, they published a revised RFP with a move-in date of this December (9 months out). They expected responses by early May.

In May, they had gotten exactly one response, from the same developer as before.

DOA had also told them that they could skip the whole RFP process if they were looking for a space smaller than 10,000 square feet. The initial request had been for more than that, but the DOT started making compromises to figure out how they could fit into a smaller space.

On May 4, the DOT requested a waiver, and included a list of 11 properties found on a site called Loopnet, claiming that those met all DMV requirements. From a public transit perspective, some of them might have, but many did not.

DOA approved the waiver on June 1, based on the reduced square footage required. But DOA said they were also allowed to look at properties larger than 10,000 square feet. Their DOA point of contact would assemble a list of candidates using “on-line resources and personal contacts in commercial real estate.” And DOA described the RFP criteria as a “wish list” that DOT could negotiate down from.

Act III: Narrowing the Field

DOT started with that list of 11 properties and another list off Loopnet, and started narrowing it down. Somehow those 20 or so became 8, without explanation in the records provided. That excluded some buildings that have frequent bus service, like offices on Science Drive, and retail spaces on Beltline Frontage Road and on Verona Road.

The “elite eight” became the “final four,” and on June 14, a team from DOT toured those properties:

  • The Globe University building on Deming Way
  • The Excelsior Drive building
  • A building on the Zor Shrine property
  • Two strip mall units along Whitney Way (probably the former Copps and Guitar Center)

After the tour, Deming was the first choice, and Whitney and Zor were a distant third and fourth, which made Excelsior second by default.

“For most customers in these counties [western Dane, Iowa, Sauk, Columbia, Lafayette, Green], the Globe University location is closer than the current office and would be equal to or closer than the Whitney location.”

Deming Way was seen as convenient from the Beltline, and close to a bus terminus at Greenway Station. There were questions about putting the Madison West DMV in Middleton, and whether there would be enough parking once the entire Globe building was rented out. But as of June 20, DOT leadership wanted to go forward with Deming Way, and only resort to Excelsior Drive if it fell through.

A junior DOT employee did point out that the Whitney Way location was closer to the locations being replaced, and more convenient for public transportation, but was overruled, for these reasons:

  • There might not be enough parking when it’s shared with other businesses (yes, that’s the same concern they had about the Globe building).
  • The parking lot was not in great shape.
  • DOT had rented from the owner of the Whitney Way property before, and had a negative experience.
  • The area around Whitney Way was not seen as conducive to driver testing.

A side by side comparison chart of the top three options was put together, and it did reflect that Excelsior Drive had insufficient bus service. But that was not considered a disqualifier compared to these concerns about Whitney Way, nor a reason to dip back into the well.

Act IV: The Surprise Twist

Something must have fell through with the Deming Way property, sometime between June 21 and July 10. Whatever it was, it didn’t appear in the records I received. Maybe it was the Middleton address. Maybe it was the parking concerns. All I know is that by July 10, they were negotiating the lease with the owner of the Excelsior Drive property, and didn’t consider evaluating other options.

On July 14, there is record of a DOT employee proposing a publicity campaign to promote the move, since “it’s not visible from main road, it’s an area not well known.” I don’t know if that ever came together. The move was communicated to staff on August 11, and the memo included a link to a news story about it, meaning that the press knew first.

Conclusions

While this new DMV location may disenfranchise voters, there isn’t any indication that was anyone’s intent. But it does seem like it was never a primary concern in the first place. And when the relatively objective RFP process went out the window, it became a “wish list” item.

I wonder what would have happened if DOT had stuck to the RFP process. I wonder what would have happened if the proactively selected locations had been scored according to the RFP criteria, rather than subjectively ranked. The Excelsior Drive location was a distant second choice; I wonder how distant it would’ve had to have been, to prompt DOT to do another internet search when their first choice fell through. I wonder how often the RFP process actually works, and how often it gets waived.

Maybe there’s something our state legislators can do, to ensure that this process yields a better result next time, and make access to voting rights a primary criterion for its gatekeepers.

It sure was exciting to submit my first Open Records Request and actually get it filled! So next time you wonder about something like this, try it out. For example, who ordered and carried out the removal of climate change language from the WI DNR website? Any ordinary citizen can check how our government agencies are operating.

For members of the press or other folks interested in the full Open Records data, get in touch with me on Twitter: @IndivisibleMad