It’s quitting time on a Monday and Michael Downes pulls out of his office and is on his way home. FOX 5, going the speed limit, can’t keep up with his city-issued 2010 Chevy Impala, as it heads up Route 50 towards the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
More than an hour later, we find the car parked in Downes’ driveway, 80 miles away from where he works as City Administrator for New Carrollton.
Cynthia Poles-Suite is a long-time New Carrollton resident.
Umeh: “Is this OK?”
Poles-Suite: “Absolutely not.”
Like others, she’s questioned Downes’ take home car, and his 160-mile round trip commute to Rock Hall, Maryland.
Umeh: “Why do you care about this?”
Poles-Suite: “Because I pay taxes in this city and I’ve been a resident for 18 years. So, it matters to me.”
Department guidelines provided to FOX 5 by Downes himself say any employee with a take-home vehicle must live within a 30 air mile radius of the city.
Downes would not go on camera to talk about his daily commute. But he told us in an e-mail, “An exception has been made in my case. I reside 36 miles from New Carrollton, as the crow flies.”
“If his personal car wasn’t adequate enough to drive that distance, it shouldn’t be our responsibility to pay that fee,” said Poles-Suite.
And while city guidelines stress employees must obey all vehicle laws, FOX 5 has found Downes has been stopped at least three times since last summer in city vehicles.
- In July 2009 for reckless driving and willful disregard for safety of persons and property
- In December 2009 for failing to display registration card on demand
- In January of this year for exceeding maximum speed – going 80 mph in a posted 55 mph zone
Downes pled guilty in all three cases.
“I’m uncomfortable with the situation,” said New Carrollton City Council Member Katrina Dodro.
She says the council never signed off on any of Downes’ take-home cars. According to Dodro, it’s all been done at the discretion of Mayor Andrew Hanko.
“It’s not illegal to do this in any way, but it just doesn’t seem right,” said Dodro.
FOX 5 tried to get in touch with Mayor Hanko, but he did not respond to our e-mails or phone calls. So, FOX 5 tried catching up with him at the City Municipal Center. But he and Downes were in a meeting.
Assistant City Administrator Graham Waters did talk to us.
Umeh: “Is it appropriate for him to have a city-issued car?”
Waters: “Yes, absolutely.”
Umeh: “Gas and mileage and live 80 miles away?”
Waters: “Yes, because that’s a personnel matter. It’s between, how the Mayor wishes to allocate resources. It’s part of his compensation.”
Umeh: “In these tough economic times?”
Waters says expenses for Downes’ car are not an issue for the city budget. And as for those traffic violations:
Waters: “The Mayor and Mr. Downes discussed it. It was put to rest. The council was informed of the issue and that was it.”
But Council Member Dodro says she did not know about all of the citations until FOX 5 told her. It’s that lack of transparency and fiscal responsibility, she says, which led her to recently run for mayor.
“The policy needs to be reviewed. It needs to be redone,” said Dodro.
She lost the election, but says she will continue to fight to make sure citizens in New Carrollton aren’t being taken for a ride.
Assistant City Administrator Graham Waters told us Downes did pay for those tickets he received and that he only gets gas reimbursement for city-related travel.
E-mail response from City Administrator Mike Downes to FOX 5 Producer:
From: J. Michael Downes [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 1:48 PM
To: Rick Yarborough
Subject: RE: Fox 5 request
I have decided to give a brief response:
On the matter of the sale of impounded vehicles, which is over two years old and which has been investigated by State and Federal agencies in addition to the city, permission was granted by me for the sale of 3 vehicles for a total of $2,000. I’m sure that you remember the game, “Rock, Paper, Scissors” – in this case, paper (receipts) trumps words (accusations). I suggest you turn your investigation (?) to the people who have contacted you regarding this matter. What part of “exonerated” and “no criminal findings” don’t they understand?
On the matter of my take home vehicle, the 30 mile limit is a police department policy to which an exception has been made in my case. I reside 36 miles from New Carrollton, as the crow flies. I can’t think of a City Administrator or City Manager who is not assigned a take home vehicle. Once again, I suggest you take a hard look at the complainants.
I offer one more thing: Now that Fox 5 News has added Randy Sutton to its staff, you have reached that journalistic pinnacle along side the tabloids that occupy the supermarket checkout counters!
Get a job!