Put on your public relations hat. D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown needs your help.
If your city was facing a massive budget deficit -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- and you had just assumed a major leadership role, what would you do?
Would you say all the right things about shared sacrifice? Kwame Brown has. Would you warn that cuts are necessary now if there’s any hope of avoiding a worse crisis in the future? Kwame Brown has. Would you -- almost as your first act as chairman-elect -- seek to lease a luxury, fully loaded vehicle that costs taxpayers $2,000 a month? And maybe then pay $1,600 to expedite delivery of the vehicle?
Well, you might not. But Kwame Brown did.
Now the vehicle -- and his rejection of another one because it didn’t have black-on-black interior -- is a swirling political storm for the new chairman. Both the Washington City Paper and The Washington Post have done stinging stories laying out what many are calling a silly, wasteful episode.
Two expensive luxury cars leased at $4,000 a month. Brutal.
Brown, in an interview with NBC4 on Monday at his home, insisted he didn’t know the high cost of the lease he did accept. He said he would try to get the leasing company to take it back. As of Tuesday evening he had returned the vehicle to the Department of Public Works. The Office of the Attorney General will renegotiate the lease, Brown said, and he will reimburse the city for his use of it.
Some consider Brown’s position -- that he didn’t know what was going on -- a weak excuse. The City Paper, which first reported the costly leases and delivery charge, said flatly that Brown is not being truthful.
Brown initially told the City Paper that he only accepted the car the government had leased for him. But The Post’s release of dozens of e-mails show Brown’s staff insisting on the luxury car and pressing Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration to get it delivered before Brown took office Jan. 2.
Even close advisers to Brown wonder why someone on his staff didn’t raise a red flag on this. Brown said he didn’t know the cost. Even if that were true, wouldn’t a staff member loyal to Brown say, “Hey, Mr. Chairman, you ought to take a look at this?” There’s nothing in the e-mails except impatience to get the fully loaded luxury car delivered.
The episode highlights a concern of even Brown supporters that his ego is too sensitive and his political antenna too fuzzy on matters like this.
• Not just luxury cars.
The luxury cars would be bad enough for Council Chairman Kwame Brown in this budget morass. But it comes after last summer’s disclosure by NBC4 that Brown was being sued for $50,000 in credit card debt. He also was overextended on his home mortgage, and he owned a boat he couldn’t afford.
All of those debt problems -- during the campaign Brown said he’d take responsibility for what he owed -- did not involve taxpayer dollars.
But it’s not a political plus for the chairman. So far, his inability to clarify and keep clean the finances of his personal life and his office is badly undermining his image.
• Florida flashback.
We’re just back from a brief Florida vacation. For the record, we rented a Ford Fusion and used our own credit card.
But the midwinter break was soured by only one thing: people smoking. And not just a few people here and there -- people smoking in the restaurants and bars, on the beach and on the sidewalks. Cigarettes were for sale everywhere. It had been years since we had seen a cigarette machine. (The ones we saw were $8 a pack.)
Even more distressing was the broad range of people smoking: men and women of every age group -- young, middle-aged and old.
It made your Notebook feel as though we here in the Washington area live in a bubble with all our anti-smoking efforts that have cleaned up so many public places.
We’ve always heard that we are different when it comes to incomes and house prices and other measurements. And believe me, no matter how unpopular smoking is here, smoking is alive and well out in the country.
We’ve got the laundry-cleaning bill to prove it.
• Florida parking meters.
Maybe it was our relaxed mood (except for the smoking), but it seemed to us that the beachside parking meters were simpler to operate and easier to find than those around Washington.
We made an informal survey of many different places. The parking pads seemed to be spaced more frequently. The screens on the modern meters had easy-to-understand, step-by-step instructions.
Heck, even people holding a cigarette in their hand seemed to have no trouble following the prompts through a haze of their smoke.