Who ya gonna call?

City Hall's top brass use taxpayer-provided mobile phones to call sweethearts, power brokers, and Pizza Hut.

Mike Marcotte is a very busy man. This was especially obvious on the afternoon of December 9, a day when I was having absolutely no luck getting in touch with him.

Marcotte works for the city of Dallas. Once the virtually anonymous director of the Dallas Water Utilities department, Marcotte had been unexpectedly catapulted last July to the high-profile position of point man on the new sports arena project.

This new job was nothing like shepherding water through pipes--a fairly straightforward task for this tall, even-tempered man. This new job was ramrodding the most expensive single project in the city's history--in record time.

Yes, Marcotte was a very busy man. And busy men do not just sit by their phone, waiting for it to ring--especially when there's a nosy reporter on the other end. Plus, this was holiday time, and Marcotte was out of town a good bit. He was also doing volunteer work one afternoon a week, tutoring inner-city school children.

So on December 9, I was dismayed but not surprised that Marcotte had not returned my morning phone call before heading off to lunch, just before taking the rest of the day off work. Discerning my irritation at ending yet another work week without a number of arena documents that I had been seeking since mid-October, Marcotte's secretary took pity on me and persuaded her boss to call me from his mobile telephone.

"I'm still trying to find answers," Marcotte told me from the comfort of a remote and unknown location. "I don't think we're going to be able to do this today."

Unhappy at the news but relieved just to have gotten this guy on the phone, I made a spontaneous request before hanging up: "What's your mobile phone number?"

There was a long, static-filled pause. Finally, Marcotte responded: "I'm not going to give it to you."

I thought he was kidding. This was, after all, a city-issue telephone--a piece of public property. "I'll give you my office number," Marcotte said, feigning generosity. I asked if he understood that his phone was paid for, and supplied by, the taxpayers of Dallas--many of whom could not afford to buy for themselves what they were bestowing upon 659 total strangers who work for the city.

"Right," he said, acknowledging the point. Still, he wasn't about to give me his mobile phone number.

This brief conversation sparked an odyssey into the amazing world of city hall mobile phones. It was an eye-opening adventure that would reveal the fascinating personal phone habits of our august city manager, mayor, and council.

It was a journey that also revealed, among other things, Mr. Marcotte's mobile telephone number. Which happens to be 533-5307.

Just in case you need it.
Last Wednesday, staring at the long list of mobile phone numbers I had obtained from the city of Dallas, I arbitrarily picked one and dialed it.

"Hello," the man carrying mobile phone number 384-7541 answered, clearly in his car on this cold, rainy morning.

"Hi!" I said. "What's your name?"
There was a pause, then a reluctant answer: "Gary Maxwell." And where are you right now, Gary? I asked cheerfully, after identifying myself as a reporter for the Dallas Observer. "In Dallas," Maxwell said even more reluctantly. "Who are you calling?"

"You!" I responded. "The person assigned to this mobile phone!...So what do you do for the city?"

Maxwell was not amused. "I'm an engineer," he said drily. "This is a mobile phone with the city," he said, in a tone meant to educate me.

Then Maxwell said: "I'd rather not tie up the phone with this--if this is like a survey."

But this was not a survey. This was a newspaper article, I explained, about city mobile phones--who had them, who didn't, and what the haves did with them that was so darn important anyway. But Maxwell didn't care. "Really, I can't tie up my phone for this. Sorry. Thank you." And he hung up.

From this aborted conversation, I got the sense that Maxwell was a very important man who did very pressing things for a living. So I called his office for details and spoke to a highly congenial woman, who told me that Maxwell was a code enforcement specialist who spent seven of eight working hours each day driving to city construction sites, making sure that signal lights are working, barricades are up, and that traffic is generally moving.

When I heard this, I called Maxwell back on a whim to see why the Hampton Road construction project near my house--a messy, two-year-long traffic fiasco for the people of Oak Cliff--showed no sign of being completed any time soon.

Maxwell said he didn't know the details--just the barricades--but he gave me the name of the person who did know. Maxwell sounded dismayed. After all, a perfect stranger now had unfettered access to him---during seven of his eight working hours.

Which, of course, is the beauty of mobile phones. And precisely why no one who has a mobile phone at city hall wants you to have his number. This is not voice mail. There are no receptionists to deflect unimportant callers. The transmission is simply not avoidable unless the person just shuts the phone off.

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