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Weighing use of public cars a murky issue

SHARE Weighing use of public cars a murky issue

When he was a Salt Lake County commissioner, Mark Shurtleff put a lot of miles on his county-owned Ford Explorer.

Kanab, Wellsville, St. George, Nephi, Salina, Moab, Fillmore, Beaver, Cedar City, Roosevelt, Manti — the man who is now Utah's attorney general took a lot of trips.

Campaigning for attorney general at the time, Shurtleff readily admits that he took advantage of his out-of-county trips to do some campaigning. But he also maintains he was conducting county business, either meetings for the Utah Association of Counties, or — more often — meetings for the state Constitutional Defense Committee, of which he was a member. Or it may have been simply going to a location to meet with local officials to, as he puts it, "get in on the ground and find things out."

The committee was an advisory board to the governor and Legislature for wilderness, roads and other state and local issues.

With the county's "guzzle-gate" scandal, several such situations have come to light. Was it personal use? If so, was it permissible? Is a county official allowed to have fun or do other things when he's on a trip in his county car conducting county business?

"I'm not going to deny that when we go on some of these things they're somewhat pleasurable," Deputy County Mayor Alan Dayton said. "But they're also business, and I try to keep them germane to my job."

The scandal has county officials checking up on each other's vehicle use — as well as checking up on themselves. Even Shurtleff, four years removed from his county job, has asked his secretary to compare his vehicle usage in 1999 and 2000 with his schedule to make sure he didn't use it for any solely political trips.

"We didn't take any family trips in it or anything like that, but I can't remember if there was anything purely for the campaign," he said.

When Shurtleff mixed campaign and county business, he says, he would compensate by filling up the car at his own expense. The records bear him out — otherwise, his Explorer had amazingly good gas mileage based solely on his county gas card purchases.

Dayton took a purely personal trip in his county vehicle to Garden City, where his parents have a cabin. He was in Logan at the time for meetings and decided that since he was so close he would pop up to Bear Lake.

"It's a question of how much personal use you have," he said. He noted that he could have driven back to Salt Lake City, picked up his personal car and driven to Bear Lake and back, but he thought that would be silly.

Dayton also took a trip to Moab in his county vehicle that he characterizes as mostly for fun, but he also attended meetings addressing wilderness and road issues that he believes justified the trip.

Chief financial officer Randy Allen and mayor counsel Greg Curtis have lost their county jobs over vehicle usage, though those situations are arguably more egregious than what has come to light since then. The exception, of course, is former auditor Craig Sorensen's theft of gasoline, which is a different matter from vehicle usage.

Allen used his county vehicle to tow his boat to Lake Powell twice, having to install a ball on the back of his county SUV to do it, and Curtis received money from the state for mileage that had already been paid by the county. He has since repaid the county.

Where do you draw the line, firing one person but not another? Does that mean Salt Lake District Attorney David Yocom shouldn't have driven his Ford Crown Victoria to Snowmass, Colo., last year for the annual meeting of the National District Attorney Association, saying it's not directly related to county business?

Two separate investigations are striving to answer the question of where the line should be drawn. Yocom is conducting an investigation into past vehicle use, reportedly looking at records going back nine years, and an independent committee commissioned by Mayor Nancy Workman is looking at how policies can be improved.

The committee is currently holding meetings, but one action that's quite possible is eliminating non-emergency personal vehicle use altogether. The County Council has passed a resolution to that effect, and people who have taken cars instead of a $400 to $600 monthly car allowance are almost unanimous in regretting their decision.Full-time vehicle use is a messy business, with drivers having to make near-constant decisions on what is and isn't appropriate.

"I wish I had taken the car allowance," Dayton told the Deseret Morning News. "If I had, I would have four years of equity in a pretty nice car, and I wouldn't be sitting here having this very unpleasant conversation."


E-mail: aedwards@desnews.com