Some new Council members taking old-fashioned perk: City car

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke is one of 12 Council members who now use city vehicles.

Four of Philadelphia City Council's five freshman members have decided to take one of the job's most-questioned perks: a city-owned car.

On the 17-member Council, that means 12 now use city vehicles, a fleet mainly of Ford Escapes as old as 2005 and as new as 2010.

The practice was challenged by former Mayor Michael Nutter, who during the recession called on Council members to hand over their keys. But Mayor Kenney - who as a councilman was one of the few who did without - is steering clear of the subject.

"Using a city-issued car is a decision that each member of City Council must make for him or herself," Kenney said through a spokesman.

Kenney may not be looking to take Council's cars, but he already took some of its parking spaces. His administration is enforcing a long-ignored executive order that bans parking on the pavement around City Hall, which had become a parking lot for some Council members and city employees.

Of Council's five newcomers, only Allan Domb did not sign up for a car. Of the 12 returning members, Cindy Bass, Bobby Henon, Mark Squilla, and Brian J. O'Neill do not use city vehicles.

"I'm not taking a salary either. So I'm not taking the car," said Domb, a real estate mogul who during his campaign last year promised to give his salary to the School District. "I didn't think it would be appropriate."

The cars issued to Council members are part of the city's fleet, and are city-owned and maintained. The city also covers insurance. Gas is free if the car is filled up at one of the city's approximately 60 filling stations, which are scattered throughout the city.

In addition to those issued to individual Council members, there are three pool cars that any member's office can use.

Nutter went after Council's cars during his 2009 budget address, calling on members to share in the city's fiscal pain. Some say the move caused an early rift between Council and the mayor that only grew wider.

He also pledged to cut about 500 vehicles from the city's fleet. At the time, he said it cost about $3,000 per year to maintain one city car.

For some, the cars again became an issue during the 2011 elections. That's when Squilla, who was running for his first term, said he would do without.

He still does.

His ride? A blue 2005 Town and Country minivan.

"The family minivan," he said. "No one else will drive it but me."

A survey of several who use city cars found little appetite for ending the practice.

"We work very, very hard, contrary to popular belief," said Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. "I serve more than 160,000 constituents, 15 different neighborhoods. Constantly on the ground. So for me, it just comes with a part of me doing my job."

Several at-large members said the car was especially needed by their offices, which represent the entire city rather than a specific district. Several members said that while they use the vehicle to get to and from work, it is also available to their staff for city business.

Councilman Derek Green, a former Council aide and a newly elected member, said his vehicle was "really the office car." As for giving it up, Green said, "That's something we can always take a look at."

Councilwoman Helen Gym, an education activist and another newcomer to Council, said she would be open to giving up her city-issued car. Gym, who lives in western Center City, said she rarely takes the car to and from work at City Hall.

"I will walk, bike, subway, and bus," Gym said. "Actually, I'm a bus fan."

Also using city cars are Council President Darrell L. Clarke, Jannie L. Blackwell, Maria Quiñones Sánchez, Curtis Jones Jr., Blondell Reynolds Brown, David Oh, and William Greenlee, and newcomers Cherelle L. Parker and Al Taubenberger.

Taubenberger said he took the car but kept his old one.

"In case I want to go to the movies, take my wife out," he said, "I take my private car."

Johnson did not have to wonder what to do with his personal vehicle when he joined Council in 2012.

He had been a state representative.

They, too, can opt for government-issued rides.

tnadolny@phillynews.com

215-854-2730@TriciaNadolny