Law director: Mayor's use of city vehicle consistent with past practice

Zoe Greszler • Apr 11, 2019 at 9:00 AM

It’s questionable whether the Norwalk mayor’s recent actions with a city vehicle are against city policies. Even if his actions do go against the “very old” policy, the city law director said it’s been consistent with past acceptable practice.

The discussion began after Councilman Jordy Horowitz told council last week he had complaints from residents that Mayor Rob Duncan reportedly had been using the vehicle “for personal use,” including “working out at the rec center.” The mayor denied an allegation he used the car to put out campaign signs.

Law director Stuart O'Hara told council Tuesday there’s very little to be said on the matter of personal use of city-owned vehicles in city records and there are no city ordinances or resolutions on the issue.

A city personnel policy manual outlined a few guidelines when it comes to using a city-owned vehicle for non-city related purposes, including driving it to and from home.

“As a general manner, sections 7.4a and 7.4b prohibits the use of city vehicles for personal use. However, this is a general prohibition, which is not absolute,” O’Hara said, adding it also prohibits driving the vehicle to and from work and from family and friends riding as passengers in a city vehicle, unless authorized by the mayor or a department head. 

The exception was given if the family or friend was riding in the vehicle for official business reasons. O’Hara said it “would be hard to imagine” where such a situation would be necessary. 

“Past city practice has permitted personal use of city vehicles. Although this is a practice it is not documented,” he added.

“In the past, the administration has permitted paid employees — generally, these are department heads — to drive city vehicles to and from work and to use them for personal business.”

There are only four vehicles being used in this manner currently — one each by the police and fire chiefs, a pickup truck driven by the sanitation superintendent and a 2015 Jeep SUV assigned to city hall for the mayor.

Any use of this vehicle for non-city purposes “is not specifically authorized” by the policy language, O’Hara said. However, “it is consistent with prior city practice.”

Personal use of the city vehicle is generally seen as taxable by the IRS. In the mayor’s case, these would be matters worked out on his personal W2. 

O’Hara said driving a city vehicle to and from work is typically seen as additional income to the employee. The city doesn’t reimburse or officially and accurately track mileage, use or destination of any of the city vehicles. Any tracking of mileage is for personal tax purposes only, O’Hara said.

The sanitation superintendent is charged a small fee for driving the city the vehicles, while the chiefs aren’t able to be taxed or fined for the use as their jobs are seen as 24/7 on-call careers by the government, O’Hara said.


Policy too ‘confusing’?

“The way it was described sounds as confusing as it was to read it with all the different exceptions,” Horowitz said. “My recommendation would be that we have some sort of tracking or logging of miles and a better clarification regarding the liability (of taking family or friends as passengers) in case something does happen.”

Council president pro-tem Samantha Wilhelm agreed.

“I would really like to have some things rewritten, because what I understood when (former safety-service director) Dan Wendt made a plea for these vehicles, it was for a very different use,” she said.

“But I do think there needs to be some new policy written. ... I just think we need to be more black and white and really clear on what we can stand behind.”


A violation or not?

Council president Steve Euton asked if O’Hara if the mayor had violated the current policy, to which he said struggled to find a direct answer.

“Driving to and from work with the city vehicle is not a violation of the policy — it is consistent with the policy,” O’Hara said.

“If he is driving it for other personal use, for example, to and from the rec center to work out during the day, now that’s questionable whether that’s a violation because again he could drive home, work out in his basement, drive back and that would be consistent with the employee policy.  It was the same thing. For the other personal use, it would probably be questionable whether that violates section 7.4b, however, it would be consistent with past practices.”

O’Hara said the policy, which predates his 17 years with Norwalk, has been untouched since its original publication — something he said isn’t good.

“This was written years and years and years ago and so year go by and people forget about it. People do other things and these things develop into a practice of doing things a certain (acceptable) way,” he said.


Fixing the problem 

Moving forward, council will look to better outline the city’s policies on the matter, making them less “confusing.”

O’Hara said he would return to council with information gathered from other cities and their policies for the next work session. 

Euton also asked each member of council to write up bullet points of things they would like to see incorporated into a new policy, or on areas that they may have questions regarding the way other cities have handled aspects of a policy on city vehicles. 

He said it will be a joint effort on all of council’s part, rather than assigning the work to a committee or subcommittee, and recognized that getting the job done properly may not be a fast process.

“It’ll take some time to work through this,” Euton said. 

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