A recent settlement provides a final chapter to the City of Bellevue’s secret recording of employee phone calls, but the damaged work relationships will take longer to heal.
For more than a year, the city’s digital phone system allowed city officials to secretly record calls to and from city offices and listen to them later.
Days after a 2009 World-Herald article about the practice, City Administrator Gary Troutman said he would suspend the recording of calls, except for those to the police. Recording calls to the police is a common practice.
A lawyer hired by a group of 35 city union workers submitted a demand letter that threatened to sue the city, contending the phone system amounted to an illegal wiretap, violating their civil rights.
To resolve the dispute, the city agreed to reimburse the union $40,000 for lawyer fees and took other steps to ensure that employees’ phone lines wouldn’t be secretly monitored again.
The city spent $10,000 last winter to reconfigure the phone system. Bellevue also paid the $25,000 insurance deductible to hire an outside law firm to defend the city against the employees. The lawyer submitted $55,000 in legal bills, the city said.
“This was all unnecessary,” said Chris Petit, president of the employee managers union. “It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The payment demonstrates that the city does understand that what they did was illegal. If not, then they would have simply let us file the case and defend it in the court.”
Under the settlement, the city denied any wrongdoing. Still, the hard feelings linger.
Steve Carmichael, Bellevue’s former longtime chief building inspector, said the telephone controversy factored into his decision to retire earlier this year.
“There was a significant trust factor broken,” said Carmichael, who now works for the City of Council Bluffs. “It was very difficult to deal with, both personally and professionally.”
Many workers were “devastated, angry and fearful” of retaliation once they became aware the city might have retained a number of intercepted phone calls, he said.
“I love Bellevue,” Carmichael said. “It’s my hometown. This is where I worked the past 25 years. Repairing that trust is going to take a long time. In fact, I don’t see much that can be done to repair the trust right now.”
Troutman said city workers have nothing to fear.
“There will not be any backlash,” Troutman said. “We attempt to treat the employees with fairness, and that’s what we will do. It’s been a long, long, drawn-out issue, but in the end, everybody is ready to move forward, and we need to ensure the BPMA (the employees union) that we are adhering to the agreement.”
The decision to record employees’ calls was made by Troutman along with Police Chief John Stacey and current Assistant Fire Chief Steve Betts, with advice from City Attorney Patrick Sullivan’s law firm.
City officials haven’t recorded any workers’ calls during the past year and agreed not to randomly monitor calls in the future, Troutman said.
Under the settlement, employees can ask an outside service technician to examine the phone system, at the city’s expense, every six months to ensure the lines are not being secretly recorded.
The city purchased the digital phone system to reduce costs, Troutman said.
The recording system was in place in case of a threat to the city, an employee or public official, so notifying people they were being recorded would defeat that purpose, Troutman said.
“I am still scratching my head why we would ever put in a system that recorded phone calls,” said City Council President Carol Blood, who took office in 2009.
Bellevue City Councilman Don Preister said he believes the employees and city administration can move past any lingering bitterness.
“Any time you have a breach of trust, there will be hurt feelings,” said Preister, a former state senator. “For my part, I intend to extend the olive branch. I did not think the city intentionally tried to snoop on people.
“With good communication, hopefully, we can avoid those incidents, and we all can get past it. It will take some time and some concerted effort to get past any hurt.”
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