Marana cracks down on town computer, cell phone use - The Explorer: Import

Marana cracks down on town computer, cell phone use

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Posted: Sunday, August 6, 2006 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

The town of Marana soon will implement policies to curb employee abuse of taxpayer-funded computers and cell phones.

Officials will write 23 new policies in all, dealing with everything from designated outdoors smoking areas to use of town vehicles.

"It's really part of maturing this organization," Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said.

Since its incorporation in 1977, Marana has grown from its humble roots to encompass 120 square miles of land. The town's population - conservatively estimated at almost 27,000 - has increased more than 40 percent each of the past 10 years.

During this time, the town's staff ballooned from a couple dozen employees to more than 330. The quick growth led to accountability problems, particularly with town-issued cell phones and computers, officials said.

In a recent administrative meeting, a handful of the town's highest-ranking officials discussed ways to prevent abuse of taxpayer-funded equipment. The town could go as far as not allowing employees to take their cell phones home, Reuwsaat suggested in the meeting. Employees should only use their phones and computers for town business, he said.

The town uses almost 250 cell phones. That number should decrease, as officials determine which employees truly need phones.

The town spent slightly more than $123,000 in fiscal 2006 on cell phone usage, more than double the amount it paid in fiscal 2004 with fewer employees.

An audit conducted late in 2005 showed that more than 80 phones remained unused, though the town still paid $55 or $25 a month for them. The town reserved some of these phones for emergencies, Assistant Town Manager Jim DeGrood said.

More than half of the unused phones belonged to the police department, according to town records. The town no longer will pay for those, officials said.

For the first time, the town has three communication radio towers, one each in Continental Ranch, Dove Mountain and near town hall. So, police officers have weaned themselves off the phones and back to radio, officials said.

"That gets rid of about 50 phones right there," Reuwsaat said.

Since the audit, three council members also ditched their phones, including Tim Escobedo, who used more than 1,700 minutes on his phone in December. The town currently pays phone fees for Mayor Ed Honea, Vice Mayor Herb Kai and Councilwoman Carol McGorary. The trio's most recent Nextel bills - from May 19 to June 18 - totaled just $149.62, according to town records, which includes their monthly service.

Some employees, including Town Attorney Frank Cassidy and Town Prosecutor Jane Fairall, have gotten rid of their Blackberry personal organizers.

"We spend a lion share of our time in the office and the powers-that-be have our home phone numbers should they need to reach us," Cassidy said. "We looked at it and said, 'Do we really need Blackberry's?'"

The town wants to cut down, possibly eliminate, employees making and receiving personal calls on their town cell phones. The 2005 audit showed many employees talking on their cell phones for a few hundred minutes each month. Some, though, went past the 1,000-minute mark and a few broke the 2,000-minute plateau.

"Educate the users; deal with the abusers," said Information Technology Director Tony Casella, who continues to work with town management on a plan for curbing personal use of computers at town hall.

The EXPLORER in recent months made several requests to view town records regarding employee Internet usage. The town refused to release some of the material the EXPLORER requested, citing privacy rights and stating that a disclosure could result in the humiliation of an employee. The EXPLORER is suing the town for access to those records.

The records requests partly prompted the town's effort to crack down on inappropriate computer use, officials said.

"It's not a rampant issue," Casella said. "But, there are a select few people who violate some policies. People lose sight that these are government computers. They're taxpayer-funded."

The town's IT department can monitor which Internet sites employees access. Casella and his staff have noticed employees banking online, checking personal e-mail accounts and shopping online.

"The IT department was noticing a lot of eBay activity," Cassidy said.

Employees also downloaded streaming music and other radio broadcasts, which slows the town's Internet connections, Casella said.

The town uses software that blocks certain Internet "categories," such as gambling, instant messaging and pornography. Officials recently added about a dozen sites to that list, including eBay.com and Amazon.com, according to town records.

"You get on a computer these days and you lose track of time," Casella said. "You can do anything on a computer these days."

Casella thought an Internet café setup in the town's lunchroom would help solve the problem. Other officials seemed to favor restricted times when employees could go online for personal reasons, including banking and checking e-mail accounts.

The town seems poised to limit personal computer use to employee breaks. Department heads would monitor their employees' computer use during breaks, Casella said.

"Taxpayers are paying us to do government work," he added. "They're not paying us to shop online."

A violation of the pending policies regarding cell phones and computer usage could result in the loss of privilege, a note in a personnel file and other disciplinary action, Reuwsaat said.

Officials plan to present the new policies to the town council in an upcoming study session.

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