washingtonpost.com
Mayor Fenty Taking Heat in the Driver's Seat
Recent Crash Brings New Criticism of Fenty as Self-Chauffeur

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty insists on driving himself around town, a resolve that no other big-city mayor appears to share and one that security experts say is imprudent for any chief executive with an exacting job and a hectic schedule.

The 38-year-old mayor ditched his full-time security detail two years ago and began getting behind the wheel to go to meetings and events outside of city hall.

But Fenty's recent fender bender has again raised questions about why the mayor is commandeering his city-issued vehicles, a Lincoln Navigator and a Smart Car. Fenty (D) was driving the Navigator when it collided with a Nissan Pathfinder at a four-way stop in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of the District this month. A police report on the accident was incomplete and contradicted an accounting of the incident provided by the mayor's office.

It is another controversy surrounding Fenty and his vehicles. In May, he apologized for allowing a friend who was not a government employee to drive the Navigator, an apparent violation of the law. Fenty also picked up a speeding ticket in the Smart Car during the same month.

Fenty would not answer questions Friday about whether his recent car troubles have caused him to rethink being his own chauffeur. When he quietly abandoned a driver and took the wheel himself in 2007, he told a reporter that he did so "because I have a driver's license."

The mayor has always sought to project the image of an energetic, visible politician. During his mayoral campaign, in which he would spend more than 12 hours each day knocking on doors, he drove himself. As mayor, Fenty has kept a crowded weekly schedule of public events, including news conferences, ribbon-cuttings and neighborhood meetings in the District. In the early days of his administration, he caught flak for having his security detail speed through the city's streets, often with lights flashing and sirens blaring, disrupting traffic and running red lights as he raced from one event to the next.

Complaints about the sirens did not warrant such a dramatic change in the way he travels, some of his critics said.

"I think it's curious that he's driving himself," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. "Why not have the security detail . . . when you have an accident like this past week?"

Attorney General Peter Nickles said the mayor has made a personal choice to travel sans driver. "This is a very unusual, activist mayor," Nickles said. "What he chooses to do is what he chooses to do."

'It's Not Advisable'

But security experts say the mayor should have a police officer drive him.

They cite concerns not only about safety but also about productivity because of the constant pressures facing the mayor of a city with about 600,000 residents. "A mayor has a lot of things on his mind that can lead to distractions," said Sal Lifrieri, who used to be assigned to then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. "You want him to not be distracted" while driving around.

Lifrieri, president of Protective Countermeasures in New Rochelle, N.Y., said police officers are trained to drive defensively, a skill that could prove necessary when trying to get to a location quickly or in the event of an emergency.

Jim Cutrell, a personal-protection specialist based in Indianapolis, said: "People like mayors, presidents, we're not paying them for physical labor. We're paying them to make decisions. . . . I have driven for six different mayors, and I have yet to see one of them who didn't engage in mayor's business while in the car."

"For a big-city mayor, especially of the nation's capital, it's not advisable at all. He owes better to the people of Washington, D.C.," Cutrell said.

Fenty appeared to be on a family outing during the Sunday accident, at Broad Branch Road and Rittenhouse Street NW. He had his 8-month-old daughter and his 9-year-old twin sons and their friend in the vehicle, according to a resident who lived near the accident scene.

On the night of the accident, the mayor's spokeswoman said that the Pathfinder ran a stop sign and hit Fenty's Navigator, but the police report dated Aug. 3, the day after the accident, says Fenty's car was the "striking vehicle," an inconsistency that prompted explanations from city officials and private complaints from police officers that procedures were not followed.

After exchanging insurance information, the driver of the Pathfinder left the scene, and Fenty arranged for someone to pick up his sons and their friend. Witnesses said only Fenty and his infant daughter were at the scene when a member of the security detail arrived. The police report did not include a mention of the children as passengers. No photos were taken of the vehicle.

The police report was written by Brian Thompson, an officer assigned to the mayor's detail, who was not with the mayor at the time of the incident. City personnel records show six officers assigned to the "executive protection unit," but they seldom accompany Fenty as he moves around the District. A police car sits outside the mayor's Crestwood home. When Fenty is driving on city business, however, he is either alone or with a special assistant, Veronica Washington.

"Something has to be done. We've had too many problems. What exactly is going on?" asked Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police. "If a security team is necessary, it needs to be operational."

'Security Is the . . . Reason'

Fenty's predecessors, Anthony A. Williams (D) and Marion Barry (D), used officers from their security details to drive them. Several members of Fenty's cabinet, including Nickles, can tap into a pool of "three or four drivers who respond to requests from cabinet directors when they need to go somewhere," Nickles said.

Throughout the country, mayors are usually escorted by a team of plainclothes police officers, and they always have a driver for official travels.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin (D) has seven police officers assigned to her, three in the morning and three in the afternoon and evening on a rotating basis, Catherine H. Woodling, a media relations officer for Atlanta, said in an e-mail.

"She does not drive herself when she is working," Woodling said. "Security is the most important reason for her having a driver. Additionally, the mayor's scheduled appointments are sometimes within hours/minutes of each other."

In Dallas, Mayor Tom Leppert has four officers who work in two shifts, said Chris Heinbaugh, Leppert's chief of staff, in an e-mail. "They pick him up at home, switch out midday, then take him home at the end of the day."

"Mayor Leppert maintains a very heavy official schedule. His official day frequently starts at about seven and ends late at night. Some nights he will stop by three different events," Heinbaugh said. "Having a driver allows him to cover more territory in a brief amount of time. Also, having a driver allows him to focus on work, making phone calls, reading briefings, etc. and not deal with driving or parking issues getting to and from events."

Baltimore police would not disclose specifics of Mayor Sheila Dixon's security detail. But Anthony Guglielmi, chief of public affairs for the police, said 10 officers are assigned to a protection unit that covers the mayor and the state's attorney. Dixon (D) is covered at all times and has a driver, he said. New York officials would not disclose any information about Mayor Michael Bloomberg's security detail. But Bloomberg (I) takes the subway and has been captured in photos surrounded by security officers.

Although Fenty has dismissed questions about the advisability of continuing to drive himself -- "These are not new questions," he said to a reporter -- his recent mishap did not escape the notice of some of his constituents.

At a groundbreaking ceremony Friday for an improvement project at Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast, a young man approached him.

Nervously, the teen shook his hand and said with consolation, "I heard about your accident."

"Thanks for your concern," Fenty said. "God bless."

Minutes later, Fenty drove away in his Smart Car.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company