Busy Signals

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

City Attorney Jones, as noted above, did not return phone messages left for him.

Nor did City Manager Cesar Odio, who announced to the Miami Herald -- a month after New Times's initial request for cellular phone records -- that he was considering imposing a $100 monthly cap on city cellulars.

Interested readers may have better luck in reaching this troika. Williams's cellular phone number is 439-5903. Jones's is 588-3607 (when he bothers to leave it switched on). Odio can be reached at 794-6603.

Hialeah may have its quirks (an incoherent street-numbering system, scads of domestic murders, a mayor convicted of extortion) but when it comes to cell phones, you've got to hand it to Dade's second-largest municipality. Thanks to some nifty negotiating back in 1992, Hialeah sliced its bills in half by leasing BellSouth Mobility a parcel of city property for a five-year initial term, in exchange for $20,000 worth of airtime annually.

With 60 phones distributed to its workers and elected officials, Hialeah ranks second only to Miami in municipal cellular generosity. Unlike Miami, however, Hialeah does order detailed billing for some of its public servants. Though the bills rarely top $100, they point to a city council as firmly committed to personal needs as to constituents.

Mayor Raul Martinez leads the pack. From February to May, Hizzoner called home 60 times. He phoned Checkers, the liquor store he used to manage, 42 times. Twenty-two more calls went to El Sol de Hialeah, the newspaper where his wife works. Martinez called his pal Gilberto Gonzalez a dozen times in May. Not bad for a man who says he began using his city-issued cellular only a few months ago.

Reached on that very phone, Martinez sounded indignant at the suggestion of any wrongdoing. "I'm entitled to call my home. We have no set rules on this," he huffed, adding that he finds it "hard to differentiate between city business and my personal business."

To judge from his December bill, Councilman Guy Sanchez has the same problem. When it was pointed out to him that his bill reflects a dozen calls to Capital Mortgage, he explained that he gave demographic information about Hialeah to a friend there. Funny thing, though. When we called the number listed on his bill, we were treated to a recorded message that commenced, "Thanks for calling Capital Mortgage. This is Guy Sanchez...." On second thought, the councilman allowed that he might have done some appraisals for Capital in the past.

Another ten calls went to Wells Fargo Investigations, where Sanchez works part-time. He placed 23 phone calls to the home of his fiancee, an impressive tally given that he checked in with his office a total of seven times. Sanchez dialed council ally Isis Garcia's mobile phone eight times and called a business that rings in her home another nine times. Eleven of these calls came in the week preceding the city's December 13 council meeting. "We're friends and sometimes we like to schedule to go to events together," said Sanchez, who also logged a 30-minute call to the business owned by council member Marie Rovira. He angrily dismissed the suggestion that he might have violated the Sunshine Law, which forbids discussion of political matters outside public view.

Rovira's bills reveal dozens of calls to her home, her family business, her husband, her mother, and other relatives. During one inspired outburst, the first-term councilwoman phoned home eight times in one hour. "When I have used my phone for personal use, it's been because I'm concerned about my kids," Rovira explained.

Isis Garcia's most loyal phone buddy, at least for the month of November 1994, was her husband Alex, who she beeped or called daily.

Many council members, including Sanchez and Garcia, say they carry their own personal cell phones and/or beepers. But only one, Herman Echevarria, refused the city's offer of a subsidized phone. "If you have a cellular, you are going to make personal calls -- that's just the way it is," said the veteran politico. "When I've got to sit down and cut services and staffing, I don't feel comfortable spending taxpayers' money on personal calls."

As for monitoring, Hialeah, like Miami, operates on the honor system. "Clearly, the phones are for city business," explains Dan DeLoach, the city clerk. "But the person who defines 'city business' is the user. It's their judgment ultimately. My job isn't to watchdog the council's phone use. I trust them. They're the elected officials of the city."

For a town that markets itself as a hotbed of excess, Miami Beach is downright prudish with cell phones. The city distributes only 40 phones, most of which go to police and firemen, and none to the mayor or city commissioners. Miraculously, city business has yet to come to a crashing halt.

The austerity is due in part to busybodies like Assistant City Manager Myra Diaz-Buttacavoli. Though she is one of the few Beach yakkers whose bills top $100, Diaz-Buttacavoli has gone out of her way to make sure she reimburses the city for any personal calls. In January she took it upon herself to request her bills for review, and she has subsequently paid back the city for all "nonofficial" calls. "If it's a weekend or an extensive call to the family, the city shouldn't be footing the bill," asserted the conscientious bureaucrat.

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