KEVIN LEININGER: Mayor Tom Henry’s expired license isn’t a scandal, but sends a message that should have been avoided

Mayor Tom Henry's new city car this was sporting a temporary license plate that expired Dec. 24. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel)
The city bought this Buick LaCrosse for Mayor Tom Henry Nov. 6 and paid for a new license shortly after that, officials say. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel.com)
Tom Henry
John Crawford
Kevin Leininger

Was that really Mayor Tom Henry’s shiny new city-owned car in the Citizens Square parking lot this week sportng a temporary license plate that expired the day before Christmas?

Indeed it was, and while that hardly rises to the level of scandal — the city says it paid for a permanent plate not long after the Buick LaCrosse was purchased Nov. 9 of last year — neither is it a non-story, as Henry spokesman John Perlich suggested when pointing out no one but me had made the non-compliance of the city’s top official an issue.

But it is an issue to City Councilman John Crawford, who last month was ticketed by one of City Clerk Lana Keesling’s enforcement officers for parking too far from a Fulton Street curb. Crawford, R-at large, said he immediately went to Keesling’s office and paid the $20 fine because “it’s not a story until you don’t pay. If a City Council member can be ticketed, so can the mayor.”

That’s exactly right, according to Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman Christine Meyer, who said “elected officials are not exempt from being pulled over by law enforcement.” But would a police or parking officer ticket the mayor for an expired temporary plate on a city-owned car — a fine that would be billed to taxpayers? If not, would a private citizen receive the same treatment?

“The Parking Control officers enforce uniformly across the board. If they find a vehicle with expired plates, they cite the vehicle per the ordinance. I’m in a hard case here,” Keesling said — a reality that indicates it would have been best for everyone involved had the episode simply been avoided.

“It isn’t anything the city did wrong. We’ve been waiting on the plate to arrive from the BMV. For some reason, there’s been a delay on their end. They are aware of the issue. You might want to contact them,” Perlich said.

I did just that, and although Meyer said she could not discuss specific individuals she did say the BMV normally mails a new plate within 14 days of the transaction. That apparently didn’t happen in this case, which means Fort Wayne’s political leader has been driving around with a plate that expired more than a month ago.

This shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. As I said, the city seems to have paid the license fee in a timely manner and I doubt tracking license plates is among Henry’s mayoral duties. In fact, the city may simply have been misinformed about the obvious solution. “State law doesn’t allow for multiple temporary plates to be issued/updated,” Perlich initially told me.

Meyer, however, said that’s precisely what should have happened.

“If for some reason the receipt of the permanent plate has been delayed and the BMV-issued temporary plate has expired, an individual can return to the BMV and get a new temporary plate,” she said. “Our suggestion to anyone who has a valid registration but has not received their permanent plate is to request a temporary plate from the BMV.”

“We will defer to the BMV on temporary plates,” Perlich said, reflecting what should be future policy not only for the city’s bureaucracy but for any other governmental unit that finds itself in a similar situation. It’s far better, as matter of public policy and politics, to avoid the appearance of a problem than it is to explain it away.

The good news is that, one way or another, Henry should soon be able to tour the city he ably leads without fear of being pulled over.

“It’s our understanding the plate has been mailed out,” Perlich said.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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