The city of Spokane is changing its policy on personal long-distance telephone calls made from work after learning that former Engineering Director Phil Williams racked up hours of such calls on city phones.
The policy of allowing employees to make personal calls and then reimburse the city for them up to three months later would be illegal in a state agency, state Auditor Brian Sonntag said.
“Local governments have more leeway on this than in state government. But I don’t understand why Spokane is allowing this,” Sonntag said.
City Hall managers are promising reforms, including new access codes for phones and a requirement that employees use their own credit cards for personal long-distance calls.
The details still are being worked out, but the new policy should be ready by the end of January, said Assistant City Manager Dorothy Webster.
In 1997, the city paid $733,777 for telephone services, including $122,661 for cellular calls. On average, the city is reimbursed about $1,000 a year by employees for long-distance personal calls.
But it’s essentially an honor system. There’s no tracking system for personal calls and the unauthorized use of phones, Webster said.
“We have no security on our phones at this time,” she said.
City Manager Bill Pupo says it’s his “gut feeling” that there’s no widespread abuse of city phones.
“We place a significant amount of trust in our employees. But it’s appropriate to review our policies every few years,” Pupo said.
The reforms are overdue, said Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers.
“I think the phones are abused. There’s a productivity issue here when employees are on city-paid time,” Rodgers said.
Councilwoman Phyllis Holmes doubts there’s widespread abuse. But there have been occasions - including ex-Councilman Chris Anderson’s cell phone bills and Williams’ personal calls from City Hall - that demand reforms, she said.
“It’s smart when abuses come to light to correct them. I think what (city managers) are doing makes good sense,” Holmes said.
Williams, the city’s engineering and planning services director, made hours of personal calls from his city office to a scientist in Nevada.
He later admitted having an affair with toxicologist Kathryn Kelly since September 1996, while the two were working on the last phase of a $300,000 study of Spokane’s trash incinerator.
Williams made at least 29 hours of personal calls to Kelly from his office between August 1996 and September 1997. He also placed at least 19 hours of calls to her on his city-provided cellular phone during the same period, records show.
His October 1996 long-distance phone records are missing from city files.
On Nov. 7, Pupo fired Williams.
While not citing the calls specifically, Pupo said he’d lost confidence in the 12-year city official, and was concerned about conflict of interest and the incinerator study’s credibility.
Williams reimbursed the city for the calls to Kelly, all of which he deemed personal.
Department heads and many city employees have been able to make personal calls and then reimburse the city every quarter, said Deputy City Manager Peter Fortin.
Sonntag, the state’s chief fiscal watchdog, questioned that policy.
City employees get a “public benefit” from using the cheaper public phone lines at work, and get what amounts to an interest-free loan by deferring reimbursement for the calls for weeks or months, Sonntag said.
Public agencies’ scan lines and cellular phone services are usually cheaper than rates for individuals.
Washington state employees must use their own calling cards to make personal calls during business hours. Sonntag said he uses his calling card to call his wife from his Olympia office at her job in Federal Way.
A 1994 audit of the city of Seattle’s telephone system and found it could save more than $110,000 a year by prohibiting personal use of telephones, fax machines, computer modems and cellular telephones, and tightening other controls over phone use.
“In 1993, the City spent over $740,000 for long-distance and cellular telephone services. We estimate at least $65,000 of this went for personal calls,” Seattle City Auditor Nora Masters concluded in her report.
Most city departments required their employees to reimburse Seattle for the personal calls, but the system was haphazard, Masters said.
After the audit, every city department was required to set up a system to ensure “that City funds and City property are used for City purposes,” Masters said.