NORWALK — City Council members here all have top-of-the-line videocassette recorders for their homes. The recorders were purchased by taxpayers earlier this year with little public notice.
Council members say the home VCRs are necessary for conducting city business.
"It's no different than the appointment book and briefcase I carry and the desk I sit at and the chair I sit in (at City Hall)" said Mayor Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez. "They're not mine; they're the city's. They're not being bought for us; they're being bought for our use."
In addition, city records show that four of five council members are receiving some of their cable television service for free from Falcon Cable TV, which is regulated by the City Council. Council members, however, said they did not believe that accepting the free service was a conflict of interest because they were using it to keep abreast of local cable programming.
Besides the VCRs, four of five council members also have at their homes paper shredders purchased by the city. The shredders are used to destroy copies of confidential city documents and memos, officials said.
Approved Feb. 11
The purchase of five VCRs for $3,190, or $638 each, was approved by a 3-0 vote Feb. 11. The purchase was the next-to-the-last item on the council's 25-item consent agenda where non-controversial items are grouped together for approval by a single voice vote.
Council members said they needed the VCRs to keep track of city meetings broadcast on the city's local access channel, such as City Council and Planning Commission meetings. Members also said that VCRs are a valuable tool for viewing staff reports on video, such as a recent inspection of a hazardous intersection on San Antonio Street that residents have complained about. After they leave office, the VCRs will be given to their successors, council members said.
On the night the council voted to purchase the VCRs, the council agenda said that city administrators recommended approval of spending $3,200 of cable TV revenues "for the purpose of purchasing videocassette recorders for assignment and use in various city operations."
The council approved the item by a 3-0 vote with council members Peg Nelson, Cecil Green and Bob White voting in favor. Mayor Pro Tem Lou Banas abstained while Rodriguez was absent.
In interviews, council members acknowledged that they knew the VCRs would go in their homes, but none could explain why that was not disclosed publicly.
Banas said that the agenda, which is prepared by the staff, was not more specific because city administrators might have been concerned about appearances.
"Sometimes, staff is too concerned about that kind of thing," Banas said.
He added that he did not have his VCR installed for at least four months after the vote because he said he doesn't have much time to watch television. But Banas added that he decided to have the VCR installed after he heard his fellow council members discussing cable programs that he thought he should also be viewing.
"My colleagues were learning things and taping things that I needed to know about," Banas said.
The General Electric VCRs purchased for council members feature stereo sound, slow-motion and still-frame playback and can be set 21 days in advance to record eight separate events, according to city records.
"I think it's the same as the use of a desk at City Hall," Banas said.
"If we're interested in seeing cable television used to the utmost in this community, we need to be aware of what's going on with it," Nelson said.
Green and White could not immediately be reached for comment.
The council members received free installation and other free services from Falcon Cable TV, the firm that was awarded the city's cable TV rights by the council in 1980.
According to statements of economic interest filed this year with the city clerk and the state Fair Political Practices Commission, in 1984, White and Banas received $276 each in free service from Falcon Cable, Green $350 and Rodriguez $250.
Nelson said she pays Falcon $22.50 a month for basic service and one movie channel because "I've always been one that likes to pay my own way."
Clint Wager, Falcon Cable vice president and general manager, said the services were provided to council members so they could monitor cable programs. He added that he did not have a specific breakdown for services donated to council members.
Banas said he did not believe accepting the services was a conflict of interest.
"We were getting calls from residents about the kinds and quality of service and we just need to know what they're talking about," he said. He added that he voted against the cable firm when it sought a rate increase earlier this year, which was approved by a 4-1 vote.
The shredders were purchased for $3,152, or $630 each, in September, 1983. Banas said they were obtained because some city officials were concerned about local activist Ed White "going through trash cans" during the time the council was conducting a city personnel investigation. White said in an interview that he had never searched officials' trash cans for documents.
Banas said he is the only council member who does not have a shredder because "I've never seen anyone going through my trash cans." The shredder that Banas opted not to use now sits in the office of Lloyd Croom, an assistant to the city administrator.
Rodriguez said he uses the shredder at his home to destroy police reports, personnel records and confidential memos from city officials that he does not want turning up in the "wrong hands."