For most airline passengers at Salt Lake City International Airport, leaving a car in short-term parking for a week would ring up a $152 tab.
But most travelers aren't the mayor of Salt Lake City. When Mayor Rocky Anderson flew to watch his son graduate from New York University, he paid nothing for using the prime spot for a week, even though his vacation was for mostly personal, not city, business.
"It's obviously inappropriate," said Anthony Musci, director of Common Cause of Utah. "It's a perk that has nothing to do with conducting the business of the city."
And the mayor is not alone. Several City Council members and other elected officials often use their free parking perks at the airport when taking personal vacations.
In his latest free parking usage, Anderson parked his natural gas Honda Civic on the front row of the airport's short-term parking lot, right next to the terminal he needed to access for his flight. The car sat there for eight days, from May 6-13.
Most fliers on weeklong vacations use the long-term lots, where the daily rate is $6 instead of $19. Those lots force fliers to schlep their bags across long distances of asphalt and catch a bus to the terminal.
Anderson's trip was a different story covered parking, only a few steps to the terminal and no charge.
Normally an eight-day parking bill in the covered short-term structure would have hit $152, but Anderson used his free-parking pass supplied by the city.
Anderson's spokeswoman Deeda Seed defended the perk, saying that Anderson hadn't taken a food allowance when traveling and that past mayors and other public officials have also enjoyed free parking. Also, Seed noted, the mayor did do some minimal business on the eight-day vacation.
Anderson attended a climate change meeting in Washington, D.C., on one morning of the vacation and went to the New York Yacht Club to watch the city's Olympic message head across the Atlantic to Torino, Italy.
"I did do city business," Anderson said, noting that "the city didn't pay for any of my flight or hotel."
Anderson has banned Salt Lake City employees from accepting any gifts as public employees. Musci's watchdog group says free parking is just as bad as Salt Lake County's guzzle-gate scandal.
"I don't think it's any different than being given a county vehicle and taking it to Lake Powell for a family vacation," Musci said. "Wrong is wrong."
Last year, as part of several ethics scandals that rocked Salt Lake County government, then-chief financial officer Randy Allen took his county-owned vehicle on a family vacation to Lake Powell. Allen resigned and was later rehired at a lower position.
It's misguided to think that free parking isn't as bad, Musci said.
"You shouldn't enjoy that perk because you're a city official unless it's part and parcel with city business," he said.
City officials have to make budgetary and policy decisions about the airport administration, including salaries, Musci said. Any perk could cloud their vision and create a conflict of interest. And there is an issue of fairness to the taxpayers who own the facility. All those taxpayers have to pay for parking, he said.
"It's an issue of fairness from the taxpayer's perspective," he said.
Salt Lake City Department of Airports spokeswoman Barbara Gann said the airport offers free parking to several city leaders, including the mayor and City Council. Free access is also given to U.S. senators and representatives, she said.
"The policy is that you can use it for personal use," Gann said.
Last week's free parking for the mayor wasn't his first.
Seed said the mayor regularly enjoys the free parking on all his travels, be they personal or business. Other city officials, including some City Council members, have also used the free parking for family vacations.
Councilman Van Turner is one city councilman who says he has never used the perk for personal trips.
"We don't leave a car in the parking lot," he said. "This is our family vacation."
Council member Eric Jergensen also said he has never taken advantage of free parking "for obvious reasons."
Other council members defended the policy by noting that city officials often call the office and check city e-mail while on family vacations. Later, however, those same council members agreed the policy may need to be changed.
"Maybe it's a problem because it does take from revenues that our enterprise fund would otherwise have," Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said.Comment on this story
Councilwoman Nancy Saxton, who said she has used the free parking several times, agreed, saying the policy "would be something that we should probably look at."
Musci said there's no question free parking for personal use should be abolished.
"It's wrong and needs to change," he said.
At the mayor's office, Seed said Anderson was wondering if reporters enjoyed free parking at City Hall they do. Media aside, Seed said the administration may be open to change."If people feel it's an issue and elected officials shouldn't have free parking at the airport we could look at changing it," she said.