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Councilman's cell phone bills kindle debate Chairman to examine reimbursement for personal calls; 'It's politics,' Gray says; Use may exceed $1,500 annual limit imposed by council


Political sniping over Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray's cellular telephone bills -- their relatively large size and whether they include unreimbursed personal calls -- erupted yesterday and likely will continue at a crs recently imposed on themselves, says the council's chairman and top Republican, Charles C. Feaga.

And Mr. Feaga now wants to examine each of the bills to determine whether Mr. Gray, the council's top Democrat, has been making personal calls without sufficiently reimbursing the county.

"I can't imagine it's just business calls on the big bill of his," Mr. Feaga said yesterday. "What we've got to do is [determine] if these calls were really business."

At a morning work session today, the council is to discuss the cellular phone bills and members' other expenses. But yesterday, the political friction began.

"It's not a question of being frugal. It's politics," Mr. Gray said yesterday of the focus on his cellular phone bills. "We've got major revenue problems, and they [council Republicans] are engaged in a sideshow."

Mr. Gray said he did not know how much he was using his county-provided cellular phone these days. But he defended his past bills -- which last fiscal year totaled about $4,800 -- saying they simply reflect his active work as a councilman.

The Columbia resident uses the car phone while commuting a total of 80 minutes to and from Baltimore's Morgan State University, where he is a political science professor.

Noting Mr. Feaga's small cellular phone bills -- generally about $40 a month -- Mr. Gray added: "Feaga probably does the least of the councilmen, so I don't think he should set the standards" for cellular phone use.

Mr. Feaga replied that he logs in more county office time and attends more events. "I think I spend a lot more time on the council than Vernon Gray," he said.

Mr. Feaga, who represents western Howard, is one of three Republicans on the council. Mr. Gray, who represents East Columbia and parts of eastern Howard County, is one of two Democrats.

In April, the County Council agreed to limit cellular phone use by each member to $1,500 for the year. Council members are supposed to reimburse the county for personal calls. The policy -- described by Mr. Feaga as a "gentlemen's agreement" -- went into effect July 1.

This morning, council administrator Chris Emery will release cellular phone totals for July and August for each of the five council members. Mr. Feaga said these totals show Mr. Gray is using his cell phone at a rate that would put him above the $1,500 yearly total.

Yesterday, Mr. Gray said he didn't know whether he was on pace to exceed the limit. He said he recently reimbursed the county $110 for three months of personal calls on the cellular phone, but he couldn't say what months the payment covered.

Even if he reaches the $1,500 limit, Mr. Gray indicated, he may continue using the cellular telephone. "I think it's not a realistic ceiling," he said.

To obtain more precise figures on council members' cellular phone use, on Friday The Sun asked David J. Wise -- who keeps files for the county's Bureau of Communications -- for council members' cellular phone records.

He declined to release the records at the request of Cecil Bray, deputy administrator for county government. Mr. Bray, citing the opinion of the county government's attorney, Thomas P. Carbo, said he would not release the telephone bills until council members were given a chance to blank out personal calls.

But Mr. Feaga yesterday said he would demand that entire phone bills be released, citing the public's right to know. "We simply have to do it," he said.

The Sun also was denied cover pages of phone bills, which show monthly totals. Mr. Bray said they might be released today.

Mr. Gray will not attend today's meeting, which was changed from yesterday because of Columbus Day. Mr. Gray usually teaches two classes on Tuesday mornings.

In interviews last week and yesterday, the Democrat made his opinions clear about the issue. He noted that Republican Vice Chairman Darrel E. Drown was not upset over Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker's spending $1,462 of government funds on a high-backed leather office chair.

Mr. Drown called the cost "somewhat minuscule" compared with the county's $149 million budget for county government.

"That's one of things me and Darrel agree on," Mr. Gray said.

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