Dialing Your Dollars

You say you haven't got a cellular phone? Heck, you own hundreds of 'em! And right now some local bureaucrat is using one to make a hairdressing appointment.

The champ shows little sign of slowing: April's tab for his two phones totaled a healthy $577.

Pedro Reboredo is a cinch for second in the cellular sweepstakes. His totals for the year ending this past March are hard to figure, because his phones have been the frequent targets of cloners. A conservative estimate, based on county records, would be $4000. And Reboredo's largess extends to his staff. Like Burke, he has authorized the use of seven phones for his office.

The rookie commissioner was quick to point out that he reimburses the county for long-distance calls to Central America. (Based on records supplied by liaison Anita Palma, Reboredo is the only commissioner to have reimbursed the county at all in the past two years). But unlike Burke, Reboredo refused to discuss the hundreds of local calls he makes every month. "I avoid, if possible, making personal calls. But it's not always possible, because time is very limited," he reasoned. "I don't think you understand precisely the facts of life as a public official."

Perhaps not, because we weren't exactly sure how calling home 60 times per month could enhance Reboredo's on-the-job efficiency. In the interest of better understanding, we dialed up a bunch of the most common numbers on the commissioner's itemized bills. One was the home of Reboredo's cousin. Another belonged to a man who said he was a "business friend." Most, however, declined to identify themselves or posit why Reboredo might call them. Ask the commissioner, they said.

Pressed to identify a few of these phone pals, Reboredo announced that he couldn't spare another moment and asked that a list be faxed to his office. A week later, a reply arrived. It was a statement by Assistant County Attorney Robert A. Cuevas, Jr., that reads in part, "You have asked whether it is permissible to use county-issued cellular phones for personal calls.... The carrying of cellular phones affords people the same telephonic capability that they have at their office, while they are at meetings and traveling by car, both during and after normal business hours. Such land line phones can be used for personal calls. Therefore, absent any county ordinance or regulation specifically limiting the use commissioners or their staff may make of county-issued cellular phones, such use by commissioners or their staff would appear to be permissible."

An elegant rejoinder, indeed, though it doesn't in any way address our question, which was, "Who are these people you're calling?"

Art Teele also likes Cuevas's line of reasoning. "The county attorney advised me when I was elected that any telephone call made by a commissioner is deemed to be official, whether it be county business or personal business," said the chairman, whose monthly bills range from $300 to $500.

Teele wants to check in with his mother in Tallahassee periodically, or even his mother-in-law up in Birmingham, Alabama? Just fine. Maurice Ferre wants to ring up his private consulting business? Why not? Alex Penelas feels compelled to chat with his parents up to five times a day? No problem.

Teele's own calls, it should be said, mostly involve business, though that business is sometimes far-flung. His bills show him to be in close contact with a high-level White House staffer named Alexis Herman, for instance. "Basically all the decisions on who the President meets with and doesn't go through her office," noted the chairman, who has logged dozens of calls to Herman's office and home in the past six months.

He says the real problem with cell phones is not personal use but rather the county's method of payment. "I've said from the dais that we could save probably $300,000 a year if we got a contract that charges a flat rate for unlimited local calls. With the volume we use, we should be able to negotiate something." (ITD officials say neither of the county's providers, BellSouth Mobility or Cellular One, offers a flat-rate plan. While rare, such plans do exist. Dallas, Texas, for instance, issues about 650 phones and pays $75 per line per month for local calls.)

Teele is likewise indignant at the suggestion that cellular phones be more strictly regulated. "What we're going to get is some stupid, pointed-headed rule that a news story like this will probably generate, when all we need is for people to use common sense and good judgment," he huffed. "I don't think any commissioner should be penalized for staying in touch with the public, whether their calls be personal or semi-personal."

But a quick peek at the 1991 administrative order that governs cellular phone distribution tends to argue that their use was originally defined in far narrower terms. In this document, then-County Manager Joaquin Avinó described the needs of those who will be issued phones. These include staffers whose jobs require "making and receiving calls while in transit which are critical to the immediate safety of life and/or property," those whose "delayed communication would cause a significant interruption in the delivery of services or a major negative impact to the county," and those whose "fixed telephones, pagers, two-way radio, voicemail, electronic mail, or fax machines cannot provide cost-effective, satisfactory communications."

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