It’s amazing what the glare of the spotlight can do to bring public officials back in line.
Two years ago, an internal audit showed Spokane city and county employees were just a little too taken with technology. Cellular phones were popping up everywhere and the phone bills that accompanied them were a little suspicious. That is, if you consider a 71-minute call to a day care from an animal control employee suspicious.
County officials hastily began writing guidelines for using the expensive phones. A city official admitted the phones may be used excessively, perhaps for personal calls. One employee even paid the city $168 for calls home from his cellular phone, but only after a newspaper reporter asked about them.
The glare of those lights of scrutiny can get pretty hot.
Two years later, things have cooled off a little. The scrutiny is gone, and so is the ardor to right things wrong.
So let’s take stock. Neither the county nor the city has adopted a written policy on the use of the phones. And promises to cut back were empty. The city hasn’t revisited the issue, but a recent audit shows the county has 77 more cellular phones than it did in 1992. And its bill has grown accordingly: It may be as high as $107,000 this year, compared to $94,000 last year.
All this, from suddenly indispensable phones that county and city workers functioned just fine without only seven years ago.
Granted, cellular phones have a place in some government jobs, particularly law enforcement where fast response is critical. But with little or no oversight in the use of the phones - or even deciding who gets one - the situation is ripe for abuse.
Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris had the right idea when he said earlier this week that the county needs to start cracking down on the phones. In fact, if they’re serious about cutting back costs - as they continually promise in earnest - commissioners will take a hard look at who actually has the phones and whether or not they’re used properly.
They can start by finding out if they’re used at all; a recent survey showed that many employees seldom use their phone, though the county pays about $8 a month just to have them.
The cost adds up. At a time when voters are demanding better accountability and wiser spending, officials would be wise to hang up the bulk of those phones.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Anne Windishar/For the editorial board