By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 11:14 PM
Faced with a growing uproar, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown announced Tuesday that he will relinquish a taxpayer-funded luxury SUV - one of two the city ordered on his behalf in recent months. But it is unclear whether the gesture will save District taxpayers any money.
"I apologize for the disruption this has caused, and I regret that I appeared insensitive to the financial challenges our city and residents face," Brown (D) said in a statement. He called the $2,000-a-month leases "an unacceptable use of city funds." The Washington Post reported Sunday that city officials ordered Brown two Lincoln Navigator L SUVs with moonroofs, GPS navigational systems and upgraded wheels - vehicles that retail for more than $60,000 so equipped. A solicitation issued by the city's Department of Public Works in November specified the luxury appointments "for the Chairman's request," according to e-mails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
When the first SUV arrived shortly before Christmas, Brown rejected it because the interior color was light gray instead of the black he had specified. He said in Tuesday's statement that he understood that the vehicle "would be returned to the leasing company at no cost to the District." But the city had accepted the vehicle as is, and it remains in the city fleet at $1,769 a month. A second vehicle was procured for Brown, at $1,963 a month plus a $1,500 charge to deliver it in time for his inauguration.
Traci Hughes, a spokeswoman for Brown, said the D.C. attorney general's office is reviewing contracts for the vehicles with the aim of returning them before the leases expire in October. "They are going to make every effort to renegotiate the lease," she said.
The second Navigator was procured through a citywide fleet contract the District negotiated last year. A copy of the contract that the Public Works Department provided to The Post contains no provision for returning a vehicle prior to the end of the lease term, but it allows the city to "redeploy" a vehicle to another part of the government.
Brown said in the statement that he will "reimburse the city for my share of the use of the vehicle" once the review of the contracts is complete. He is not prepared to bear the full cost of the lease should the city fail to ease the lease terms, Hughes said.
With debate brewing on how to close a budget shortfall of $400 million or more, the vehicles sparked outrage among some of the 10 candidates vying to fill the at-large council seat Brown vacated in January.
Vincent Orange, who ran against Brown in the Democratic primary for the chairman's seat and is seeking the at-large seat, called the matter an "exercise of poor judgment" in a interview Monday with WTTG-TV. Republican Patrick Mara called on Brown to apologize and end the SUV leases, writing that city cars "are for transportation, not showboating."
Sekou Biddle (D) who is filling the seat on an interim basis and is running in the April 26 special election with Brown's endorsement, acknowledged a personal lapse on Brown's part. "There's an error in judgment there. There's an error in setting clear expectations in managing our resources," he said.
Biddle and other council members called for a review of city auto-leasing practices after learning of the exorbitant price of the SUV.
Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who as chairman of the transportation committee oversees the Department of Public Works, wrote to Director William Howland on Tuesday asking for data on vehicles owned and leased by the city "for use by an executive agency or department director, their senior management staff, and the Council of the District of Columbia."
"If we're going to have a relationship to the people who are paying our bills, we've got to show that we're being smart and frugal," he said.
During an appearance on WTOP radio with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) praised Brown as an "excellent leader" and a "prudent decision maker."
"Whatever's involved in this, he'll work his way through it," he said of Brown. In keeping with previous mayors, Gray has use of a luxury SUV ordered by his security detail.
Gray, who preceded Brown as chairman, had use of a city vehicle in that position - a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. His predecessor, Linda W. Cropp, used a Ford sedan.
Now Brown will be "driving his own car," Hughes said. He has not ruled out using a city car in the future, she added.
Brown owns a Navigator of his own, he said in a July interview - a 2003 model.