Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser says he sees nothing wrong with accepting the free use of a car from a local Honda dealership, but some ethics experts say the deal — while legal — is troubling.
Missouri law and city ordinances allow Funkhouser to accept the $23,195 Civic Hybrid from Honda of Tiffany Springs. The car won't cost the city anything, Funkhouser said, and the dealership doesn't want anything in return, except some free publicity.
Funkhouser said he cannot afford a new car.
"It is a nice new car," he said. "The new mayor is not mentally challenged. Somebody offers you a brand new car you take it."
But the decision creates a public perception problem and raises concerns that others will also want to offer free goods and services, experts say.
"It is very, very tempting in tough economic times to want to take something that is free and to save the city money," Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at Santa Clara University in California and a former Santa Clara mayor, said Tuesday. "But what you may be saving in dollars is often overshadowed by what you lose in public confidence."
The dealership will still own the car and replace it as often as annually. Taxpayers will continue to pay a $600-a-month car allowance to the mayor.
Funkhouser will pay for gasoline and insurance and will have to file a disclosure report with the Missouri Ethics Commission by May 1. He said he also will determine whether he has to claim the car as income with the Internal Revenue Service.
Councilman John Sharp said Funkhouser was wrong to accept the car.
"It sure doesn't pass the smell test," he said. "It's nice that the mayor is providing so much free publicity to a foreign auto company."
Bobby Hennessey, general manager of Honda of Tiffany Springs, said the dealership does not plan to ask the city for tax breaks, rezoning or anything else. He also denied that the motive was free publicity for Honda.
"It was just an opportunity to give him a car," Hennessey said. "He seemed like an environmentally friendly mayor. Why the heck not give him one? It promotes good things."
Funkhouser was correct in his initial decision to drive his own car, said Char Miller, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio. He predicted the mayor's political opponents would hammer him for accepting the Honda.
"It's a misstep and a significant one very early in his mayoralty," Miller said. "If he wants to remain mayor, he has to clean up his image."
Meanwhile, the city has been paying $700 a month for the Lincoln Town Car that former Mayor Kay Barnes leased a day after Funkhouser won the mayoral race. After Funkhouser said he would drive his 1997 Toyota Corolla instead, the city began negotiating to get out of the Lincoln's two-year lease.