Busy Signals

County bureaucrats aren't the only ones who get to have cellular-phone fun

This is a test:
You are the assistant manager of a city that is hurtling toward bankruptcy. Your boss, the city manager, has already called for massive cuts in staffing and services. One of your duties is to oversee the distribution of 140 cellular phones, which cost your town more than $150,000 per year. Given the circumstances, what measures would you consider appropriate?

a) Issue a memo urging city workers and elected officials to limit the use of city-issued cellular phones to city-related business; b) as a deterrent to malfeasance, scrutinize all itemized phone bills that exceed $200 per month; c) suggest that your boss draft a written policy regarding cell phones.

If you answered any of the above, you're doing better than Miami Assistant City Manager Ron Williams, whose approach to cellular phones can be characterized, charitably, as laissez faire.

How laissez faire? Think of it this way: Despite providing more mobiles than any other municipality in Dade, Miami receives bills with no listing of individual calls. In other words, a city worker could ring up a friend in Pakistan and gab for hours and there would be no way to detect the call. (Unlike standard phones, cellular bills run about 25 cents per minute for local calls and up to a dollar per minute for long distance.)

Williams does not see this as a problem. "There most certainly is oversight with regard to the cell phones," he stresses. "The user sees his bill, reviews it, approves it, and resubmits it to the city. Any portion that's for personal calls or noncity business, they hand me a check."

Several city workers do hand Williams a check. But they generally have no idea how large that check should be, because the bills they review include only a total.

More disturbing, while Williams portrays his pay-for-your-personal-calls rule as one widely adhered to, most of Miami's elected officials seem to be unaware of any such ban.

"As far as I look at it, the phone's part of my compensation package," says Commissioner Victor De Yurre, who runs up monthly bills of $300 to $400. "I use it for city business to a great degree, but if I need to call my [private] law office or a friend, I call them. I've never reimbursed the city in the eight years I've been in office."

Leal Schumacher, assistant to Mayor Steve Clark, is the city's leading dialer, running up tallies that routinely soar over the $500 mark. He says he has "never heard any interpretation of the rule" when it comes to personal calls, though he assumes the phones should be used for official business.

"I don't know that there's anything to say that the [cell] phones can't be used other than for city business," adds City Attorney A. Quinn Jones. "My impression is that you can use them 24 hours a day if need be, for whatever purpose. They're like the cars leased for commissioners."

Williams says the city doesn't order detailed bills because the service carries with it a five- to seven-dollar monthly charge per bill. While this is true of BellSouth Mobility, the city's main provider, Cellular One, supplies detailed billing free of charge. "All a client has to do is ask," offers field support staffer Marie Dobbs. Cellular One is the service used by four of the five commissioners, Leal Shumacher, City Manager Cesar Odio, and the majority of city employees.

When New Times requested that Williams order detailed billing from Cellular One and BellSouth, he referred the matter to City Attorney Jones, who flatly refused. "Those records are not made or received in connection with city business, so we are under no obligation to produce them for you," Jones explained.

In a 1992 letter he wrote to the city attorney of Lauderhill, Florida, Attorney General Robert Butterworth employed a similar line of reasoning. But he went on to state: "In light of the fact that public funds are being used to lease the cellular telephone equipment and to pay the charges for calls made on these telephones, the city is under an obligation to insure that these funds are being properly spent to satisfy a public purpose.... Thus, it may be prudent for the city to maintain records of the service supplied by the cellular telephone company in sufficient detail to enable the city to satisfy this requirement."

In early June, New Times sent Jones a letter quoting Butterworth's opinion and reiterating the request for detailed billing. Jones did not respond.

Curiously, several city workers contacted by New Times claimed to have regularly reviewed their own itemized long-distance phone bills and returned them to the city. On the page containing the totals of his June 1994 bill, for instance, Victor De Yurre added a note that reads in part: "Those long-distance phone calls marked were not made by me and I cannot recall if all the calls made in Miami are mine."

In light of this discrepancy, Williams was asked once more to provide any itemized bills kept by the city. He promised to look into the matter but never called back. When New Times finally caught up with Williams -- on his cellular phone -- the bureaucrat refused to answer any questions. "I have referred all questions about cellular phones to the City Attorney's Office," he snapped, effectively abdicating his job as records custodian.

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