The city is cracking down on free airport parking for local elected officials amid concern that some of them stored vehicles at terminals, allowed spouses to use the perk and even took advantage of the privilege after leaving office.
The dozens of local, state and federal officials eligible for free parking will get letters requiring them to reapply and affirm they understand the "courtesy" parking rules, airport officials said late last week.
Those principles limit use to official business by lawmakers, City Council members and others given free parking cards by the Aviation Department. The policy also limits free parking to seven consecutive days in the terminal garages at George Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports.
The city tightened its policy in August but took another look when the Houston Chronicle reported last month that some officials violated the new rules after they took effect.
The Chronicle examined data from 2004 until early this year, showing that officials used the perk about 1,700 times during that period and saved about $100,000 in parking fees.
Officials who reapply will use their old cards. The requirement is among several recent developments:
A review of electronic parking logs shows that cards issued to at least three officials - including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land - were used after they'd left office.
Ten days ago, parking attendants at Hobby denied free parking to the wife of state Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, as she tried to use her husband's card.
Councilman Peter Brown recently mailed his gold-colored card, sliced in half, to the Chronicle. He stated in a letter that its use "sends the wrong message" to constituents who are "taxed to the limit."
City officials, who defend the program as a nationally common courtesy to public officials working on behalf of constituents, tightened the rules last year to avoid abuse.
"I thought we had a pretty good program in place," said Richard Vacar, the city's aviation director. "I'm a bit disappointed that some of the principles here were overlooked, not by us but by the users."
The latest move is an effort to make the guidelines clear to those users.
"It will be their principal responsibility to make sure the privilege isn't abused," Mayor Bill White said last week.
Vacar said policy violations are rare. He noted that there were only three cases of officials parking after they'd left office among the hundreds of transactions reviewed by the Chronicle.
Those three were DeLay, former City Councilman Bert Keller and former state Rep. Ken Yarbrough, according to the records.
DeLay spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty said the former congressman was busy promoting his new book, and he wasn't available for comment. Records show he parked for free at Bush from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1. That was several months after he resigned from office.
Flaherty said DeLay wasn't familiar with the parking card because he always had a security driver.
"So after leaving office he wasn't sure what it was used for and asked the attendant if he was supposed to use that card. The parking attendant said it had expired but when he recognized it was Mr. DeLay, he insisted that he just go on through," Flaherty wrote via e-mail.
Yarbrough, who used the perk once after leaving office, according to the records, couldn't be reached.
Keller parked at Bush in January 2004, a few days after his successor, Councilwoman Pam Holm, took office. He said he doesn't remember the trip but that he might have been attending a state homeland security meeting that was an extension of his service for the city.
"I do not concede that I used it for personal use," Keller said, who added that he never spent tax money for travel during his time in office. "It might have been personal, and I made a mistake. I just don't know."
Vacar said, however, that he plans to bill Keller, DeLay and Yarbrough for the parking after their terms expired.
His department also has drafted a letter to notify officials about the tighter rules.
The letter reinforces what has always been the policy: that the airport "strictly prohibits" anyone other than the cardholders from using the program.
Adjusting to change
But Jackson, whose wife, Vickie, was denied free parking last month, said his wife hadn't had problems getting free parking with his card in the past.
That raises questions about whether other officials let spouses or staffers take advantage of the program. But airport officials say that parking attendants are supposed to check identification to ensure that the person using the card is the elected official.
They also say the Jackson instance is an example of the system working as planned.
On that day, Jackson said, he stayed late at the Capitol attending committee hearings, so his wife returned to Houston without him.
"We just leave the parking pass in the car," he said. "She's done that before when we're riding together, and we haven't had a problem."
Jackson noted that officials at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport allow legislators' spouses free parking, and he didn't know the rules were different in Houston. But he said he will comply now.
Vacar's letter also notes that officials won't get free parking for more than seven consecutive days.
The renewal application also warns of citations for parking violations: "Vehicles cannot be `stored' in garage facilities," it reads.
The Chronicle's review last month found that, in at least a dozen cases since the policy change in August, parking attendants granted free passage to officials who left vehicles in garages longer than a week.
City Controller Annise Parker recently wrote White and Vacar suggesting that officials get a listing of their parking each year so they can check for possible violations.
"Elected officials are no different than any other employees who are entitled to reimbursement for expenses incurred while traveling on business," she wrote. "However, we do owe it to the taxpayers to ensure there are proper controls in place to prevent the potential for abuse and provide for transparent government."
The city plans to send a letter that clarifies in explicit terms the rules on free airport parking for local elected officials. The policy:
Prohibits anyone other than the official from using the city-issued card granting free parking.
Limits free parking to a week, with fees for the additional time payable when the official leaves the lot.
Makes officials responsible for any parking citations, loss or damage.
Source: City of Houston
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