TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: An EZ story 4 u — who’s texting on the taxpayer’s dime

The outcry over lavish spending on a General Services Administration retreat, where federal bureaucrats enjoyed $44 breakfasts, is a reminder that few things get readers more incensed than learning that government employees are treating themselves to luxuries that budget-strapped citizens are forced to scrimp on.

That’s why it’s an especially good — and easy — public-records story to take periodic stock of how employees at your college or school district are using government-issued cellphones and other communication devices.

It’s been estimated that the average American spends $635 a year on cellphone service, one of the highest rates in the Western world (and since that estimate comes from 2008, before data-gulping smartphones were in universal circulation, it almost certainly is low). Because it’s one of the biggest bills consumers pay every month, knowing that a state or city official is abusing a taxpayer-subsidized cellphone provokes special outrage.

Last summer, the Nashua Telegraph published an examination of four months’ worth of bills from phones issued to local government officials. One city official regularly exceeded 2,000 voice minutes — that’s more than 33 hours of talking — each month. Since a typical work-month consists of about 175 hours, that means the employee spent the equivalent of 20 percent of his workdays on the phone. That’s a bunch.

Telegraph reporters found that the school system owned 80 cellphones and the city government (including the police force) owned another 90. It’s legitimate to ask the criteria for getting a government-paid phone, and whether your local agency is handing them out more generously than comparably-sized agencies elsewhere.

It’s not just the bills for cellphones that are accessible under state public-records laws — it’s the content of the text messages themselves, as fired Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino has recently been reminded to his regret. If a government official is using a state phone to conduct business, then the messages should be accessible under virtually every state’s open-records act — assuming that the agency has an effective retention policy.

In addition to destroying marriages, remember that cellphone records also can pinpoint what a government employee was doing at a particular time. Using cellphone billing records, for instance, federal investigators determined that the driver in a fatal August 2010 Missouri school bus crash may have been distracted by sending and reading text messages just before the collision.

Not all government cellphone use is wasteful, of course, and journalists must take care to present stories with perspective and without sensationalism. Cellphone bills that seem enormous by individual household standards may be entirely reasonable at a 50,000-student college with multiple campuses, and may actually save money if they enable schools to reduce land-line use or permit employees to telecommute from home. Large-dollar expenditures should never automatically be presumed “excessive” — but they should be examined for necessity, at a time when even necessities are on the fiscal chopping block.