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Councilman Puts $500-Phone Bills on Taxpayers' Tab

November 10, 1988|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — For years, Councilman Warren Harwood has billed taxpayers about $500 a month--at least 10 times more than most of his council colleagues--for telephone calls made in the course of city business.

Some of the charges have been for personal calls--including several that his wife periodically made to her mother. Harwood says that those have been relatively few and inadvertent. Last week, he reimbursed the city for $393 in non-business calls made over the past five months.

But city and county officials have raised further questions about the hundreds of other calls that Harwood has routinely billed to the city each month.

Most of the calls--sometimes more than 20 a day--have been placed from the office where Harwood typically works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. as a Los Angeles County employee. On some days, the councilman's city-business conversations have added up to more than two hours, records show. In recent months, Harwood's supervisor at the H. Claude Hudson Comprehensive Health Center has warned him that making city calls during county work hours is a violation of employee policy.

Vice Mayor Wallace Edgerton's reaction was more pointed: "It is one of the most outrageous rip-offs of the taxpayers I've seen . . . doing city business on county time and getting paid for it. I consider it a scandal," said Edgerton, who is Harwood's most vocal critic on the council.

Harwood, an administrative projects coordinator, insists that he either places the city calls during his lunch hour and 15-minute breaks, or makes up the time by skipping breaks and working late. However, city expense records cannot verify that because the councilman has routinely whited-out the column on his phone bill showing the exact time of day each call was placed.

Attempt at Privacy

Harwood says he whites-out the calling times to ensure his family's safety. Because his city expense reports are public record, he reasons, someone could look at the phone-call times and figure out when he is away from his wife and two children.

Most council members either do not bill City Hall for phone expenses or they typically keep them under $50 a month. Harwood and Councilman Evan Anderson Braude are the exceptions. So far this year, Braude has averaged $193 in calls made from his car phone.

"The easiest way for me to be in contact with the office or my constituents usually is on the car phone," said Braude, a Long Beach attorney. Braude submitted only three phone bills this year, but his aide, Carole Estes, says she plans to submit others for reimbursement.

Harwood acknowledges that his phone bills are considerably higher than the rest of the council, but says that is partly because he is the only member whose place of employment is outside Long Beach. To keep up with city business during the day, he must call long distance from Los Angeles and charge it to a personal credit card, that adds to the expense.

Describing himself as a hands-on administrator who keeps his overall city expenses well in check, Harwood says he works hard for his North Long Beach district, and that translates into frequent calls to constituents. Indeed, many of his constituents say he is quick to return calls and is very accessible.

"He's been very cooperative," said Clyde Wilburn, a Villa Park Mobile Homes resident whose number appeared on Harwood's most recent phone bill.

Violet Ferns, another North Long Beach resident, said Harwood promptly returned her calls when she and her neighbors fought against allowing a store near her home to sell alcoholic beverages. "We won," she said. "He's doing a good job."

Still, other city officials say that may not be reason enough to justify Harwood's phone-calling practice.

"Each of us has an obligation to the taxpayer on how we spend their dollars," Councilwoman Jan Hall said. "In his case, he has two sets of taxpayers he has to account to."

Braude said he has no problem with Harwood being reimbursed for legitimate expenses. But as for the time spent conducting city business during the work day, Braude said, "That's something the county would have to comment on. As a taxpayer, I would have a problem with it."

City Auditor Bob Fronke, who approves expense report payments, said he talked with Harwood about the high phone bills several years ago. "He convinced me that in fact he uses the phone a good deal to conduct city business," Fronke recalled.

In the city's $1 billion-plus budget, a councilman's phone bills are "probably not a big concern," the auditor said. But, "to the average citizen," Fronke continued, "every nickel is important."

Harwood defends himself by noting that his overall administrative expenses are the lowest on the council. For fiscal 1987-88, he spent $102,768, while the rest of his colleagues spent an average of $116,753. Of the eight members, Braude had the highest expense: $134,015.

Blown Out of Proportion

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