Busy Signals

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.

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.

Would that former city manager Roger Carlton had agreed. "The regulations govern that I have that phone for my public and personal use," Carlton growled when we questioned him about his $250 to $350 monthly tabs. "I used it on a very limited basis, to call my house to say, 'I'm coming home,' and to call my parents, who are elderly, to make sure they were okay."

Depends on how you define the word limited. In February Carlton placed 66 calls to his mom and dad and to his home, accounting for twenty percent of his $280 bill. He resigned in May, after his cell-phoneless bosses on the commission raised questions about his arrogance and his job performance.

Recently departed City Attorney Laurence Feingold, whose bills at times topped $400, has been the Beach's other big spender. Most striking amid his frenzied calling patterns was the lawyer's obsessive reliance on directory assistance. Feingold dialed 411 27 times in December, and another 40 times in January. Total cost to the populace: $46.25. Last month Feingold stepped down from his position. Beach officials have not yet indicated whether they plan to retire his phone.


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