The recording of Bellevue city government telephone calls is being halted.
Mayor Gary Mixan and City Administrator Gary Troutman sent employees a memo Thursday saying the city would suspend recording until a review of the practice could be completed.
The decision follows an article published in Sunday's World-Herald about the recording.
Troutman said in an interview for that article that phone calls in the City Hall and City Hall Annex were being recorded for “public safety” reasons through a telephone system installed last year.
“This (newspaper) article generated a number of issues with the existing procedure,” the city's memo said.
Neither callers nor employees were notified of the recording.
The recording system gave Bellevue the capability to retrieve and listen to calls coming into and going out of the Mayor's Office, City Administrator's Office, City Clerk's Office, Planning Department, Finance Department and Public Works Department, among others.
The city will continue to record calls associated with the Police Department, arson investigators and main lines into the Fire Department for investigative purposes, said City Attorney Pat Sullivan.
The memo to employees was sent out shortly before the Bellevue Professional Management Association met to discuss a lawsuit against the city. The association is a collective bargaining unit of city employees.
“As the president of the BPMA, I'm glad that the mayor took the action that he did,” said Steve Carmichael.
“I'm gravely concerned with what's transpired here, though. ... Our attorneys are evaluating it,” he said.
Retired City Clerk Beverly Hrdy sent a scathing letter this week to the mayor, City Council members and Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov, asking: “What kind of paranoid individuals are running the city?”
She also called for the replacement of Troutman.
“Bellevue is being run like a police state — the employees are afraid to say anything because they need their jobs,” Hrdy wrote.
Polikov said he received a second letter complaining about the practice as well.
To pursue a criminal case, Polikov said, he would need a victim to come forward who had been harmed by the recording. He would direct a victim first to an investigative agency such as the Nebraska State Patrol or the Sarpy County Sheriff's Office.
“Recording the phone calls is contrary to the law without notice to people that are using it,” he said.
Polikov said Thursday that he believes he has “fairly warned” Bellevue officials that they need to comply with the law.
“They're moving forward to doing that,” he said.
In an earlier interview, Troutman defended the recording. He said the system was in place in case of a threat to the city, an employee or a public official. The system would allow for the review of threatening phone calls.
Notifying people that they were being recorded would defeat that purpose, he said.
“It seems that if we told the employees that we were taping their phone calls, the word would be out on the street. Then we wouldn't get the information in the event of a public safety issue,” he said.
Lillie Coney, associate director with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said the Bellevue case raised “huge privacy issues” as well as the potential for city officials to abuse the system.
“The whistle-blower who disclosed it, they're probably going to be looking for that person,” Coney said. “(The public) should be grateful to the person who stepped forward to say something.”
City Councilman Don Preister, reached after the story published, said the city had a moral responsibility to inform the entire City Council, employees and the public about the recording.
“I think people have a right to know,” Preister said. “I think (the notification) would have been better done within the framework of city government rather than people having to learn about it from the paper.”
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