Who ya gonna call?

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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.

It's all so terribly personal, so direct. It is in your face, in your ear, and oh so very private.

Until now.
It's not just the actual phone numbers that are interesting--though having mobile phone numbers for every top banana at city hall is downright delicious.

It's nice, for example, to know that by merely dialing one of those phone numbers on the list, the odds are excellent that if it's early in the morning, after 5 p.m., or on a Saturday, the boyish Mayor Bartlett will personally peep out a greeting on his very own car phone.

But what's particularly fascinating (and in some cases, downright peculiar) are the phone fetishes of these great and powerful leaders we elect and appoint--especially since, in their wildest, worst dreams, they would never expect the media to analyze their calling habits for the great unwashed masses.

Such are the real-life consequences of supping at the public trough--a concept some of our elected officials just don't quite comprehend.

"Councilman McDaniel says that for any local calls that are made on a mobile phone, the councilmembers don't have to divulge that information," Rhonda Hart, assistant to the city manager, mayor, and council told me upon receiving my mid-December request for the detailed monthly billing records of her bosses. "And he wanted a memo to go to the city attorney clarifying that. He felt the information was privileged."

Which, of course, it wasn't. And which, of course, made me want to examine Councilman Craig McDaniel's phone bills all that much more. Just what kind of privileged chitter-chatter was taking place on that freshman councilman's tax-paid mobile phone anyway?

Only the phone bills knew. And we wanted them.
After receiving a formal written request for all city employees' cellular phone numbers, Assistant City Attorney Tracy Pounders declined to release the phone numbers of the 571 police and fire officials who have mobile telephones. Citing an attorney general's written opinion, Pounders claimed that, for security reasons, police and fire phone records can be withheld under the Texas Open Records Act.

But Pounders did authorize release of the phone numbers assigned to 88 other employees and elected officials at city hall. And he later made available more than 2,500 pages of those tiny, envelope-sized Southwestern Bell bills that all phone customers receive.

On those pages was every single call placed during 1994 by councilmembers with city-paid mobile phones as well as City Manager John Ware and First Assistant City Manager Cliff Keheley (who recently resigned under fire). That amounted to thousands of phone calls.

To pet hospitals, pizza joints, and sweethearts. To friends and out-of-town family. To Toys R Us and Montgomery Ward.

While there is, thankfully, city business conducted on these phones, too, it's not as much as you, the taxpayer, might expect, considering that you're paying the tab.

And considering the city's formal written policy on use of mobile phones.
According to city administrative directive 4-8, a six-page missive adopted in 1991, a mobile phone is issued only "to improve productivity or enhance the public safety."

In that vein, city officials are supposed to keep personal calls "to a minimum." They're supposed to pay "for any personal long-distance or other calls resulting in additional charges on a flat-rate phone." And they're supposed to make sure that phone calls are "as direct and succinct as possible."

Well, so much for rules.
As you can imagine, having a tax-paid mobile phone is a much-coveted perk. While councilmembers are automatically entitled to one, the city manager controls who gets the rest--which, outside of the police and fire departments, is strictly limited to 75 employees citywide. When a staffer with a mobile phone leaves the city or moves out of a job that fits the criteria for having such a perk--being on the road a lot, supervising a lot of people, working on 24-hour call--other employees joust mightily for the departing staffer's phone.

There's always a waiting list. And even those who qualify for a phone can remain waiting for years.

Like everything else at city hall, cellular-phone use is expensive--including the police and fire department phones, it cost taxpayers $579,809 last year.

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Laura Miller

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