The Prince George’s County Council votes during a meeting in council chambers of the County Administrative Building on Dec. 6, 2016, in Upper Marlboro, Md. At the meeting, the council authorized creation of a Vehicle Use Review Board. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
The Prince George’s County government spends more than $110,000 a year on automobile allowances and take-home cars for county 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 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 council member 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 County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) — who does not oversee the council — rescinded the benefit for all but one of his senior staff members in 2011 as part of a broader attempt to clean up the county government.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 (D-Laurel), District 1, was $633.87. The highest was $2,709.73, for Toles’s SUV.
Council member Mary A. Lehman, left, speaks with council member Karen R. Toles during a Prince George’s County Board meeting on Jan. 27. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
The other three council members, along with administrator Robert Williams Jr. and auditor David Van Dyke, received car allowances of $9,688 each.
Elected officials in the District, Arlington, Montgomery and Fairfax 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 working 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 (D-Mitchellville) said in a statement that the 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 Boardafter Franklin’s arrest that is supposed to 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.
Board members Deni Taveras, left, and Mel Franklin during a Prince George’s County Council meeting. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Although council members with take-home cars are supposed to use them for only 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 it was fine to drive her county-owned 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 (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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 cut the number of executive branch officials with take-home 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 discuss the incidents.
This SUV driven by Prince George’s Council member Mel Franklin in the Nov. 21 rear-end collision. (The Washington Post)
Franklin banged up the front of a county SUV in October 2012 andtotaled 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 take-home 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 that 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.
Council member Karen Toles, second from right, poses with Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) during Edwards’s recent Senate campaign. To the left are council members Mel Franklin and Obie Patterson (partially hidden). At the far right is council member Andrea Harrison. (Arelis Hernandez/The Washington Post)
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 county-provided fuel in 2016, more than 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 get 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.
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.”
Via Washington Post