County’s car perk is re­gion’s most gen­er­ous

Six Prince Ge­orge’s County Coun­cil mem­bers with take-home cars re­ceived at least 107 ci­ta­tions be­tween 2011 and 2016 for speed­ing, park­ing il­le­gally, toll vi­o­la­tions or run­ning red lights.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY ARELIS R. HERNÁN­DEZ

The Prince Ge­orge’s County gov­ern­ment spends more than $110,000 a year on au­to­mo­bile al­lowances and take-home cars for coun­cil of­fi­cials, a perk that goes far be­yond what is of­fered in neigh­bor­ing ju­ris­dic­tions.

All nine coun­cil mem­bers and the coun­cil’s two top ad­min­is­tra­tors are ei­ther as­signed a gov­ern­ment ve­hi­cle or are paid a yearly car al­lowance.

Be­tween 2011 and 2016, coun­cil mem­bers driv­ing take-home cars were in­volved in at least 15 col­li­sions, in­clud­ing a ma­jor crash Nov. 21 that re­sulted in the ar­rest of Mel Franklin (D-Up­per Marl­boro) on drunken-driv­ing charges.

They also re­ceived at least 107 speed­ing, missed-toll and park­ing ci­ta­tions, ac­cord­ing to pub­lic records pro­vided to The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Forty-six of those tick­ets went to coun­cil mem­ber Karen R. Toles (D-Suit­land), a pop­u­lar law­maker who drew at­ten­tion in 2012 af­ter she was tick­eted for driv­ing 105 mph on the Cap­i­tal Belt­way.

“No one is ever pleased to be on the re­ceiv­ing end of a ticket,” Toles said in an email. “I am making ev­ery ef­fort to re­duce fur­ther in­frac­tions.”

Most coun­cil mem­bers de­clined to dis­cuss de­tails of the car pro­gram or de­fended the perk as an im­por­tant way for law­mak­ers to get around and stay vis­i­ble in the 485-square-mile sub­ur­ban ju­ris­dic­tion. A few said more ac­count­abil­ity is needed.

Com­mu­nity ac­tivists say the pub­lic is largely un­aware of how the priv­i­leges work and would be con­cerned if they had more in­for­ma­tion.

“It is a ben­e­fit that most work­ers do not get,” said Joseph Kitchen Jr., who lives in the county and is pres­i­dent of Mary­land Young Democrats. “For a gov­ern­ment that con­tin­ues to com­plain about be­ing strapped for cash, they have clearly not done enough to elim­i­nate a lot of fat in the bud­get.”

A lu­cra­tive ben­e­fit

Take-home cars and al­lowances have been a perk for top Prince Ge­orge’s County Coun­cil mem­bers since at least 2001. County Ex­ec­u­tive Rush­ern L. Baker III (D) — who does not over­see the coun­cil — re­scinded the ben­e­fit for all but one of his se­nior staff mem­bers in 2011 as part of a broader at­tempt to clean up the county gov­ern­ment.

In 2016, take-home cars and al­lowances for coun­cil of­fi­cials cost the gov­ern­ment more than $111,000, ac­cord­ing to records ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post through a Mary­land Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest. That amount does not in­clude pay­ments associated with Franklin’s col­li­sion, when he to­taled a county-owned SUV for the sec­ond time in four years.

Last year, law­mak­ers with take-home cars pumped an av­er­age of $1,400 in dis­counted gas from county fu­el­ing sta­tions. The low­est gas bill, for a fuel-ef­fi­cient Ford Fu­sion used by coun­cil mem­ber Mary A. Lehman (DLau­rel), was $633.87. The high­est was $2,709.73, for Toles’s SUV.

The other three coun­cil mem­bers, along with ad­min­is­tra­tor Robert J. Wil­liams Jr. and au­di­tor David H. Van Dyke, re­ceived car al­lowances of $9,688 each.

Elected of­fi­cials in the Dis­trict as well as Ar­ling­ton, Mont­gomery and Fair­fax coun­ties use their per­sonal ve­hi­cles for work and have lim­ited ac­cess to the gov­ern­ment fleet for spe­cific out-of-area or busi­ness trips.

Last year, Mont­gomery’s nine coun­cil mem­bers were re­im­bursed an av­er­age of $2,469 for work-re­lated travel — about a quar­ter of the cost of a take-home ve­hi­cle or car al­lowance in Prince Ge­orge’s.

Fair­fax County’s Board of Su­per­vi­sors spent $8,000 on re­im­burse­ments. Most went to com­pen­sate staff mem­bers who work in dis­trict of­fices for their trips to the main gov­ern­ment com­plex. Su­per­vi­sors them­selves can­not be re­im­bursed for travel within the county. They claimed $554 for trips else­where in the state.

Prince Ge­orge’s Coun­cil Chair­man Der­rick Leon Davis (DMitchel­lville) said in a state­ment that his county’s ve­hi­cle pro­gram “pro­vides a key tool ex­tend­ing an elected of­fi­cial’s abil­ity to serve their com­mu­nity and rep­re­sent res­i­dents as board mem­bers on state and re­gional bod­ies as well.”

Davis, who de­clined to an­swer ques­tions, noted that the coun­cil voted to cre­ate a Ve­hi­cle Use Re­view Board af­ter Franklin’s ar­rest that will ex­am­ine the car pro­gram and rec­om­mend changes by June 30.

The ve­hi­cle al­lowance rose this year to $10,315, based on the es­ti­mated cost of gas, main­te­nance, in­sur­ance and yearly pay­ments for a used ve­hi­cle of the type as­signed in the take-home car pro­gram. Of­fi­cials get just un­der $400 ev­ery two weeks, which is con­sid­ered tax­able in­come.

Coun­cil mem­ber Deni Tav­eras (D-Adel­phi) called the al­lowance “a real help,” not­ing that she and her col­leagues are paid about $11,000 less than their coun­ter­parts in more ex­pen­sive Mont­gomery.

Van Dyke, who as county au­di­tor an­a­lyzes fi­nan­cial and bud­getary data and tracks coun­cil spend­ing, said the car al­lowance “ab­so­lutely ends up be­ing higher than my ac­tual [com­mut­ing] ex­penses … It’s not a mat­ter of need, it’s a perk.”

Wil­liams, the coun­cil’s chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer, did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Although coun­cil mem­bers with take-home cars are sup­posed to use them only for lim­ited per­sonal trips, they are not re­quired to log mileage or ac­count for where they trav­eled, said coun­cil spokes­woman Karen Camp­bell. Sev­eral law­mak­ers said they drive their take-home ve­hi­cles on their own time, as well.

“There are not clear-enough re­stric­tions on per­sonal use,” said Lehman, who said she con­sulted with for­mer coun­cil mem­bers and staff and con­cluded that it was fine to drive her coun­ty­owned car on days when she had no coun­cil busi­ness.

She said some coun­cil mem­bers have tried to main­tain logs to doc­u­ment non­busi­ness trips but that it quickly be­came an over­whelm­ing task.

For Franklin, “per­sonal use” meant com­mut­ing and “stop­ping to eat af­ter or be­fore work or af­ter or be­fore events,” he said in a writ­ten state­ment. “If trav­el­ing out of the county solely for per­sonal rea­sons, I al­ways used a per­sonal ve­hi­cle.”

Coun­cil mem­ber Obie Pat­ter­son (D-Fort Wash­ing­ton), said he tries to be dis­ci­plined in us­ing his county car strictly for of­fi­cial busi­ness. He said he also has two per­sonal cars.

Coun­cil mem­ber Todd M. Turner (D-Bowie), said he chose a take-home car when he joined the coun­cil in 2015 so his teenage daugh­ter could drive his per­sonal ve­hi­cle. Now that she is away at col­lege, he said, he plans to get the car al­lowance in­stead.

Coun­cil mem­bers An­drea C. Harrison (D-Spring­dale) and Toles did not re­spond to ques­tions about per­sonal use of their take-home ve­hi­cles.

Baker de­clined to take a po­si­tion on the coun­cil’s pol­icy, say­ing it was not his role to po­lice the leg­isla­tive branch.

When he came into of­fice, he elim­i­nated the car al­lowance for mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion. He re­duced the num­ber of ex­ec­u­tive branch of­fi­cials with take­home car priv­i­leges to his chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer and 31 oth­ers who travel ex­ten­sively for work — mostly pros­e­cu­tors and in­ves­ti­ga­tors in the state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice and the heads of the home­land se­cu­rity, cor­rec­tions and pub­lic works agen­cies.

Crashes and ci­ta­tions

Five cur­rent coun­cil mem­bers have been in­volved in col­li­sions while driv­ing county cars since 2011, the records pro­vided to The Post show. Lehman and Toles each had two, Harrison had three, and Franklin and Pat­ter­son each had four. In at least eight of the 15, coun­cil mem­bers were at fault.

The most se­ri­ous in­ci­dents in­volved Franklin, who rear-ended driv­ers in three sep­a­rate crashes that re­sulted in in­juries. He has de­clined re­peated re­quests to dis- cuss the in­ci­dents.

Franklin banged up the front of a county SUV in Oc­to­ber 2012 and to­taled the same ve­hi­cle that De­cem­ber. The county paid more than $61,000 to pur­chase a new SUV and cover re­pairs on the other ve­hi­cles and li­a­bil­ity claims. Nei­ther crash was re­ported to the pub­lic when it oc­curred.

Af­ter the sec­ond col­li­sion, Franklin stopped us­ing a gov­ern­ment car. He re­ceived a ve­hi­cle al­lowance un­til May 2016, when he again was given a county ve­hi­cle.

Fol­low­ing the Nov. 21 crash, which sent two peo­ple from the other car to the hos­pi­tal, Franklin was sus­pended from the take­home car pro­gram and de­nied a ve­hi­cle al­lowance. Davis said in a state­ment at the time that Franklin may even­tu­ally be able to get re­im­bursed for busi­ness travel, de­pend­ing on “his le­gal sta­tus and the sta­tus of his driv­ing priv­i­leges.”

Franklin, whose blood al­co­hol level mea­sured 0.10, is sched­uled to ap­pear Mon­day in Prince Ge­orge’s County Dis­trict Court, ac­cord­ing to on­line records. He wrote in a re­port to the county that he was on his way home from a restau­rant the night of the crash and was tired.

“But I thought I was fine to drive home,” he wrote. “I briefly dozed off and failed to stop at the in­ter­sec­tion with Dower House Road and struck one ve­hi­cle from be­hind.”

Dur­ing the years he drove a county car, Franklin racked up 20 ci­ta­tions — more than any col­league ex­cept Toles. Lehman had 17 ci­ta­tions, Harrison had 15, Pat­ter­son had seven and Turner had two, ac­cord­ing to the records pro­vided.

“Any speed­ing cam­era, park­ing or toll cam­era tick­ets were un­in­ten­tional mis­takes and were per­son­ally paid for,” Franklin said.

Pat­ter­son said he is of­ten sur­prised by the lo­ca­tion of speed cam­eras in his dis­trict, in the south­ern part of the county. “I prob­a­bly just got caught,” he said.

Lehman said in an email that she had been tick­eted fewer than three times a year over a six-year pe­riod, in some cases for toll vi­o­la­tions be­cause her E-ZPass wasn’t prop­erly ac­ti­vated.

“I’m try­ing to be more care­ful, but I don’t be­lieve it’s a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem for any­one ex­cept me!” she wrote.

Harrison did not re­spond to ques­tions about the tick­ets she re­ceived.

Toles’s 46 ci­ta­tions were for park­ing il­le­gally, speed­ing or ig­nor­ing toll­booths or red lights.

A speed cam­era in Ber­wyn Heights caught her driv­ing 57 mph in a 40 mph zone on March 28, 2011, three months af­ter she took of­fice. That July, Toles was tick­eted for leav­ing her car in a no-park­ing zone on Main Street in Up­per Marl­boro, near a pop­u­lar lunch spot for county gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees and about 400 yards from a gov­ern­ment garage where coun­cil mem­bers can park free.

Toles lost her take-home car priv­i­leges for sev­eral months af­ter she was pulled over in July 2012 for driv­ing 105 mph on the Belt­way. She told po­lice that she was ap­ply­ing makeup and an­swer­ing emails on her phone but did not no­tice she was making un­safe lane changes or speed­ing.

The coun­cil mem­ber was granted judg­ment be­fore pro­ba­tion, apol­o­gized and com­pleted a driver im­prove­ment course, which en­abled her to avoid points on her li­cense. By spring 2013, she was back in a gov­ern­ment car. Again, the ci­ta­tions be­gan to roll in.

In her state­ment, Toles said she ac­cu­mu­lated the tick­ets while “ex­e­cut­ing my du­ties as a pub­lic ser­vant.” She noted that she had paid all the fines, which to­taled $4,400, in­clud­ing $1,200 in late fees.

Records also show that Toles pumped $2,709.73 in coun­typro­vided fuel in 2016, more that dou­ble the $1,170 av­er­age gas bill of her col­leagues. The coun­cil mem­ber, who is tak­ing night classes at the University of Bal­ti­more Law School, did not re­spond to ques­tions about why she used so much gas or whether she drove the county SUV to her classes.

Toles’s ci­ta­tions were not se­ri­ous enough to af­fect her driver’s li­cense or record. But the vol­ume con­cerns long­time crit­ics. Com­mu­nity ac­tivist Bruce Branch, who ran against Toles in 2014, called her driv­ing record an “egre­gious vi­o­la­tion of pub­lic trust.”

For Toles sup­port­ers like Elsie Jacobs, how­ever, the ci­ta­tions are not a big deal. “I don’t have an is­sue with it, be­cause if they have a ticket, they got to pay it,” said Jacobs, a lo­cal leader in Suit­land. “We have other things to worry about.”

Pos­si­bil­ity of change

The coun­cil voted Dec. 6 to es­tab­lish a three-per­son panel to study the county’s car-use and al­lowance pol­icy and records.

On Wed­nes­day, Davis an­nounced the board ap­point­ments: busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive Jac­que­line L. Brown, com­mu­nity ac­tivist Sa­muel A. Epps IV and en­gi­neer Enor R. Wil­liams Jr. In a news re­lease, he said the board would be­gin its work in early March.

The board could rec­om­mend sus­pend­ing or re­vok­ing the driv­ing priv­i­leges of any coun­cil mem­ber or chang­ing the coun­cil’s ve­hi­cle poli­cies.

If the pro­gram stays the same, costs will prob­a­bly jump in 2018, when the coun­cil is slated to add two at-large mem­bers.

But some coun­cil mem­bers have sug­gested it may be time for a change.

“There are some as­pects of car use that re­ally are not as clear as they could be,” Lehman said. “Along with the is­sue of should coun­cil mem­bers have county cars, the ve­hi­cle-use board should look at the finer points” of per­sonal use and re­quire­ments for doc­u­ment­ing travel.

Pat­ter­son said that although most coun­cil mem­bers have not com­mit­ted ma­jor in­frac­tions with county cars, the risk of los­ing the pub­lic’s trust on this and other perks may out­weigh the ben­e­fit to law­mak­ers.

“I think even be­fore this started pop­ping up, we should’ve been look­ing at this and all of our poli­cies,” Pat­ter­son said. “We need to be more ag­gres­sive in our over­sight re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.”

MICHAEL ROBIN­SON CHAVEZ/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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