Thomas Gaither, a 54-year-old Baltimore truck driver, was caught in the cogs of the state Motor Vehicle Administration's bureaucratic gears.
Standing with arms folded near the counter of the MVA's Mondawmin office, Mr. Gaither said the Baltimore County police were pressing him to pay several unpaid 1988 parking tickets. While he owns a Chevy truck with the tag number listed on the tickets, he said didn't get those tags from the MVA until 1990.
So he took time off from work, went to Mondawmin and asked for a letter certifying that the tickets predated his tags. Employees listened, conferred, decided to write a letter, then disappeared into a side room. The process, he said, had taken 2 1/2 hours, and Mr. Gaither was steamed.
"If it takes the people this long to type up a letter, it's clear they need to get somebody else to do their typing for them," he grumbled. His letter did not appear for another 20 minutes.
In response to motorist discontent, the MVA has spent $35 million since 1987 to improve service: building three new full-service offices, renovating six others, creating five "express" mini-offices and establishing a 55-agent, toll-free telephone information center in LaVale.
When Gov. William Donald Schaefer was elected in 1986, "the MVA had a history of poor service, and the governor made it very clear that the MVA would improve," said Paul E. Schurick, Mr. Schaefer's press secretary.
In recent years, Mr. Schaefer has made at least one surprise visit to Mondawmin to personally check out complaints.
MVA officials say the situation has vastly improved since 1987, citing statistics gathered in recently initiated customer surveys.
A September 1990 MVA mail survey of motorists, which drew 3,320 responses, showed 50 percent rated service excellent, 37 percent acceptable and 9 percent "needs improvement."
Face-to-face interviews with motorists at branch offices yielded even rosier statistics, with eight out of 10 rating service "excellent."
Some motorists interviewed by The Sun at random agreed that service is improving.
"It went rather quickly," said Rafael Betancourt, a 43-year-old Baltimore resident who visited Mondawmin recently. "It was really more than I expected. I think I spent a total of about six minutes in there to renew the plates. The last time I did this it took me more than half an hour to get it."
But some drivers still seem about as enthusiastic about visiting their local MVA office as submitting to oral surgery. Customer satisfaction seems to vary according to location.
The MVA mail survey showed that 24 percent of the motorists who used the Gaithersburg full-service office thought service should be improved, while 29 rated it "excellent." Customers seemed happiest with service in Annapolis, where 74 percent rated it excellent and only 4 percent said it needed improvement.
The most common complaints, according to MVA statistics, are long lines and a bad attitude among employees.
"I got directed to the wrong place first, and I waited there," groused a middle-aged woman in a trench coat, who went to Mondawmin recently to revise the title on the family car after her husband's death. "Then at the second place, I think she [the clerk] was making personal phone calls."
The woman, who would not give her name, said she was told she didn't have the required paperwork and would have to come back. Was it a long wait? "Yes, yes, yes!" she said. "And not the greatest competence, either."
Sylvia Hill, president of Chapter 22 of the Maryland Classified Employees Association, which represents workers at the MVA's Glen Burnie office, said motorists sometimes confuse thoroughness with sloth.
"We try to make sure that the work we turn out is accurate and up-to-date," she said. "It sometimes requires an enormous amount of research. To someone who is not aware of what's going on in the background, it may seem slow."
She added it was "hard to imagine" an MVA employee being less than polite, "but I guess it happens."
Edward D. Seidel, the MVA's manager of customer service, admitted the image of the MVA worker is not as good as it should be. "We're comedians' fodder," he said. But the state is trying to change that image, he added, by aggressively encouraging workers to be "courteous, friendly and efficient."
The MVA now requires workers to wear name tags, conducts customer surveys and stages seminars and workshops for workers on polite and friendly service, agency and union officials say.
Supervisors send employees big blue "You Were Mentioned" cards notifying them when a citizen praises their work.
Ms. Hill said MVA Administrator W. Marshall Rickert, appointed in 1985, has raised employee morale by attending union meetings, inviting workers to come to him with concerns and renovating offices.
"He has done everything," she said. "He has improved the facilities, the lighting, he has changed the counter around and given us up-to-date equipment."