City cell phones are getting a lot of static, but it's not because they're in a dead zone. It's because 13 of them were suddenly disconnected.
Last week, Memphis City Council chairman Brent Taylor shocked many council members when he unexpectedly told them he was getting rid of their city-issued cell phones. The announcement, which came in the form of a memo on April 28th, informed council members that the phones would be turned off May 1st and that they should make their own arrangements. The memo did not say why Taylor was eliminating the phones. Taylor says it was strictly a matter of saving money. Other council members suspect it may have something to do with media requests for cell-phone billing records.
The Flyer sent out a Freedom of Information Act request in early April for city council members' cell-phone bills. At least one other media outlet has requested similar documents from the city. After receiving the council's master bill for several months, the Flyer then requested an itemized billing statement for each of the council's cell phones, as well as reimbursement records.
Taylor told the Flyer that he found out about our freedom of information request on the council's cell-phone records "after the fact" of his decision to eliminate council cell phones. "The media periodically request those records," he says. "We're accustomed to it. It's no problem."
But if Taylor didn't know about the media requests, he was definitely in the minority. Several council members say they received a memo from council attorney Allan Wade before their phones were shut off. And Pat Vander Schaaf says she was told about the media requests by council administrator Lisa Geater. "When I was informed there were inquiries from the media, I said, 'Let them have the prior bills,'" she says. "I'm assuming she called all the council members and said they're asking for this." In fact, the day after the Flyer's request, Vander Schaaf called our office volunteering her records.
In records released by Geater for cell-phone usage billed in December, January, February, and March, council members racked up $8,469.77 in charges. The council's bill, which includes phones for all council members (except Tom Marshall and John Vergos, both of whom declined to accept city-paid phones), for city council attorney Wade, and for the sergeant at arms, should be about $100 a month for each of the 13 phones. The plan provided 1,200 minutes per phone. Council members are expected to reimburse the city for any charges over that amount.
Some council members, like Vander Schaaf, barely used their phones and were charged a minimum $76.77 a month, while others, like Taylor and councilperson Janet Hooks, had months of extraordinarily high phone bills. In the four months of calls, Hooks' total phone bill was $1,106.50, and Taylor's topped out at $1,327.12.
"I am one of the ones who uses more than the 1,200 minutes," Taylor said when asked about the bills. "I've exceeded my plan, but I always reimburse the city. Had I had Cellular South, I would have had unlimited calls." Hooks did not respond to inquiries for comment.
"As chairman of the council, I am responsible for the day-to-day operations of the office," says Taylor. "I was looking at what we were spending each month on our cell phones. I looked with Cellular South and we could get a plan for $49 with unlimited minutes. My original plan was to switch companies. Switching companies would literally cut our cell-phone bill in half," says Taylor.
But Taylor says that when he tried to do so, City Hall told him no. Because the city's cellular contract has been awarded to Nextel and Cingular, Taylor was not allowed to switch to Cellular South, though he could change plans with the city's two companies.
"I said, 'We could cut our bills in half, but I can't do it because we have a contract?'" says Taylor. "I just decided it was better to do away with all the phones."
Taylor is hardly alone. Across the country, cash-strapped government entities are doing away with cell phones. In Rhode Island, the governor recalled all cell phones used by his administration. In Maryland, an audit found the state could save $500,000 a year by keeping better records of contract terms and reimbursement. Other cities are asking workers to justify their need for tax-paid cell phones. One issue that keeps coming up is how easy phones are to abuse by running up thousands of minutes, making personal calls, or not reimbursing the governing agent.
"It was one thing in the budget that jumped out at me when I was looking at our expenses," says Taylor. "I even approached Cingular and asked if they could do anything better and they said no. There was some deal they offered us that we could pool minutes but it was going to cost more. To me, it makes more sense not to have them at all."
But not all the council members see Taylor's point. Some of the members were angry about having their phones cut off, while others were upset by the lack of notification before it happened. There was even a rumor that at least one council member was going to call for Taylor's removal as chairman.
After hearing of the decision, council member Edmund Ford switched his cell phone -- and the cell-phone number -- to his personal use. Reached on it last week, he said he shouldn't be talking council business on the phone since it wasn't a "council phone" anymore. He said the reason he kept the number is because everyone -- organizations, constituents, and the media -- knows he can be reached by it.
"[Taylor] is the chairman so it's within his right [to disconnect the phones]," says Ford. "I found out two days before they turned it off. That wasn't right. I need my phone to talk to my constituents."
Ford says council administrator Geater simply faxed him Taylor's memo. "It never was discussed. It was a surprise to us like it was a surprise to you," he says. "Some of the council members may not need a cell phone because they don't get the number of calls that I get. For every one call other council members get, I get 50. It's not only you calling on it. The Commercial Appeal calls on it. My constituents call on it. It's not a problem, but he didn't do it right."
Councilperson and budget chairman Pat Vander Schaaf sent out a press release last week saying she would address the discontinuation of the cell phones at a budget hearing. She also was upset that she didn't know Taylor would be canceling the cell phones.
"The first time I heard about the cell-phone issue was when I picked up The Commercial Appeal," says Vander Schaaf. "I wasn't aware there was a memo until after the budget hearings. I never saw anything. ... Something this important, if we're not in the office, somebody should have called us." Vander Schaaf, who has about 16,000 unused roll-over minutes left on her phone, called the company after she saw the article and asked them not to deactivate the phone but to put it in her name. "Right now, I'm in a cast so I use it more often to call and tell people that I'm running late."
Councilman E.C. Jones not only turned in his city-issued cell phone but his city-issued pager, too. Jones says he doesn't think Taylor has thought the whole thing through. "I don't sit in an office all day. I make a lot of calls from my car. Now, if I want to call someone, I have to go to the council office or wait until I get home at night," he says. "If I wasn't on the council, I wouldn't need a cell phone."
Jones was also upset at what he saw as the news media's involvement in Taylor's decision. Because Taylor's memo did not include a reason for the cell-phone cancellation, Jones called the council office. "I was told that the chairman was tired of the news media requesting records. I don't know if that's right or wrong, but that's what I was told. I saw Brent on television and he said that wasn't why, but that's what I was told."
About five years ago, city council records released to the media showed discrepancies with cell-phone reimbursements. Of the almost $10,000 that city council members owed for 1997 cell-phone use, less than $4,000 was reimbursed to the city.
Wade says he overlooked the Flyer's recent request for reimbursement records when responding to a more extensive request. A second request is pending. Whether or not copies of council members' itemized bills will be released to the media is under discussion. The city council office does not keep copies of those records after giving them to council members.
Vergos and Marshall, the two council members who don't have city-issued cell phones, cited privacy concerns as part of the reason why. "I have offices," says Vergos. "I'm reachable. I didn't want to sit every month and segregate my personal and public calls."
Although one would assume that the city council could not just cancel services if it had a contract to preclude them from switching companies, Taylor says no. "It's part of the city government's plan. It's 13 phones out of hundreds. ... All we've done is drop a few."
The city government actually has two cell-phone providers: Cingular and Nextel, both of which have contracts dating through June 2003. From documents provided by the city attorney's office, it appears the city has 424 cell phones. Billing statements issued during the month of March totaled over $20,000 in new charges.
City attorney Robert Spence Jr. says the reason the city has contracts with two wireless companies has to do with September 11, 2001. "We had a need for the two-way radio functionality so we could communicate by two-way radio instead of cell phone," says Spence. Nextel has that function but Cingular doesn't. Spence says he doesn't know why the city didn't decide to use only Nextel.
Taylor says he looked at Nextel plans as well, but they couldn't save as much money as he wanted.
"I also cut out spending on promotional items such as cuff links, coffee mugs, necklaces, ink pens, and all the gift bags," he says. When people receive city council proclamations, they are usually given cuff links or necklaces. The smaller items are given away at community events. Taylor says he also decided not to produce the 30- to 40-page booklet the council publishes every year with council members' pictures in it, some history of the city, and a letter from the chairman.
"I don't want to give the impression that those things are evil or bad," says Taylor. "They didn't fit my impression of government."
Taylor says he will save the council $40,000 on the promotional items and $20,000 on the cell phones during the next fiscal year. This year's city council budget is $1,525,750. The proposed council budget for fiscal year 2004 is $1,551,628, with a $33,000 increase in salaries and benefits. The council will review its budget in a hearing May 8th.
Jones, for one, is not sure the inconvenience is worth the savings. "This is a drop in the bucket in the whole budget. There are 13 of us; it should be less than $15,000 a year. If we're that close to the budget, we're bankrupt already and we shouldn't be in this business."
Taylor says the cuts don't refer to any specific budget concerns. The city's financial health is strong. "Some of the other council members might disagree with my decision, but my responsibility is to use the tax dollars wisely," he says. "Everyone would agree I'm fiscally conservative."