T’was a mere three weeks ago when I stood at the Mobile County License Commission’s downtown window getting a new car tag AND a new driver’s license. The fact I was the only person there that morning may have helped things, but I felt like I was dealing with a government agency at least getting something right.

The lady at the window helped me with a missing document — a situation I figured would easily spiral my tag-acquiring experience far beyond the 10-minute range. While we waited on that, she snapped my license photo, even managing to get a shot that almost makes it look like my actual weight matches the lie on my license.

One fax later and I had my tag. Maybe not 10 minutes, but good enough for government work. Ooops. I mean certainly better than the three license commission experiences burned into my mind years ago when I waited roughly two hours apiece and needed to make a second trip at least once.

Time and again I’ve heard people talk about going down to the License Commission and coming out talking like they went to Disney on one of those rare days when the entire population of South America wasn’t there — talking about going to get a car tag like it was an enjoyable experience. I suppose that demonstrates just how much folks dread dealing with government agencies in general, and what a crappy job the previous license commissioners had done in specific.

Let’s face it, while it’s very nice current License Commissioner Kim Hastie has lived up to her pledge of “10-minute tags” since taking office, she may benefit as much from the failures of her predecessors as from her own managerial expertise. There should never have been a reason for two-hour tags in the first place.

But I’ve heard time and again people wanting to give Hastie a free pass after being indicted on 16 federal charges last week simply because she brought us 10-minute tags. Moses brought his people to the Promised Land and didn’t get that much slack.
Two hours at the License Commission or 40 years in the desert, you decide.

Word of a federal investigation into Hastie possibly using some squirrelly fiscal machinations to support her efforts to be placed over both the License Commission and the Mobile County Revenue Commission once Marilyn Wood retires has been out there for a few months. Hastie had been charming anyone who would listen and explaining how consolidating the two offices would save big money and intimating that she could do for the sadly run Revenue Commission what she did at her current gig. Following Marilyn Wood would be akin to being president after Herbert Hoover — lots of easy ways to look good.

Alas for the citizens who hold 10-minute tags up there with good schools and indoor plumbing, Hastie is looking down the barrel of 16 federal charges essentially alleging she used her position to bully her computer vendor, Victor Crawford, into funding political efforts to land her the commission consolidation, a job that comes with more pay and power.

Specifically the feds say Hastie and her deputy commissioner conspired to have Crawford pay a political strategy firm to help her gain the popular support needed to get the law changed in Montgomery. They say Hastie told him to pay the firm, then orchestrated a scheme by which Crawford would pad his computer work bills, which she then submitted to the Mobile County Commission for payment. Of course they simply pencil-whipped it through because though they sign the checks, there really isn’t an ounce of oversight of the License Commission or Revenue Commission when it comes to spending money.

It is alleged she paid a second  firm to help write legislation and work on getting a bill passed, but the money came from an account she couldn’t use for such purposes. The firm ended up paying the money back to the License Commission.

It’s even alleged Hastie forced Crawford to pay her $1,800 entry fee to run for Revenue Commission and also made him buy TVs, iPads and other electronic goodies for her to give away and her office Christmas party.

I have no idea whether Hastie actually did any of what she’s been charged with, but I am a little shocked by the number of people who seem to want to give her a free ride because she kept her 10-minute tags pledge. Others say she’s nice. And a few want to offer the lame argument that she wouldn’t be stupid enough to jeopardize herself for such small potatoes.

But if you’re looking for examples of politicos jeopardizing themselves for very little, look no further than the Mobile County Water, Sewer and Fire Protection Authority where Kim’s father is a board member This renegade group unethically gave themselves nearly free water for years, violated open meetings laws and allowed some amazingly bizarre spending of public money, including paying an employee’s college tuition.

Her former boss, ex-County Commissioner Mike Dean also showed up before that very board trying to solicit work it would have been illegal for him to receive. Media scrutiny is probably all that stopped it.

While that doesn’t mean Kim did anything she’s accused of, it does point out she’s been around some people who might bend the rules from time to time.

When Hastie met with us about her desire to consolidate the two commissions, she made good points and at the end of it I agreed it would probably save money and anyone certainly could do better than Wood. But I told her my major concern was the consolidation would create an even larger organization that nobody ever pays attention to. I referenced Wood’s more-than-$2 million no-bid contract for a computer system that she slid by the County Commission a few years ago as a prime example of how people in either position have traditionally acted with impunity.

Whether Hastie gets nailed on this or not is hard to say until we see the evidence. On her side is the fact that convicting a public official of corruption in Alabama is a pretty rare thing. I’ve seen no evidence the Attorney General, the District Attorney or the State Auditor have any real interest in public corruption prosecution. We’ll see if U.S. Attorney Kenyen Brown has any follow-through on this.

Regardless of anything else, Hastie’s troubles beg the question of why the Revenue and License Commissioners are elected in the first place. The federal indictment outlines — at the very least — a feasible plan for converting public money to pocket money. These positions should be managers appointed by the County Commission and subjected to rigorous audits. It’s too easy in the current situation for the elected commissioners to all give each other a wide berth.

I bet we could still have 10-minute tags even without it being a political calling card.


THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN

The Village adds a seventh People for the New Year’s Eve MoonPie drop.

Cartoon/Laura Rasmussen

The Village adds a seventh People for the New Year’s Eve MoonPie drop.