Why did Councilman Richard Vineyard charge the city for $118 in telephone calls made over a two-month period to, among other places, a muffler warehouse in Bakersfield, a medical lab in San Jose and the home of a Signal Hill City Council member?
Vineyard, who owns a muffler shop in Hawaiian Gardens, won't say just yet. But he says that the calls pertained to city business.
Councilwoman Kathleen Navejas said last week that she considers the calls to be "an abuse of city credit cards." She has asked Vineyard to reimburse the taxpayers unless he can show that the calls were necessary.
"What kind of business could the city possibly have with a muffler shop in Bakersfield?" asked Navejas, who raised the issue at the last council meeting two weeks ago. "If the city is doing business with Signal Hill, I sure don't know about it. Why in the world would he (Vineyard) be calling a councilwoman three and four times a day?"
Hawaiian Gardens City Council members expect to hear the answers to those questions at Tuesday night's meeting.
"I don't think it's necessary to give an explanation," said Vineyard, who plans to meet with City Atty. Maurice O'Shea on Monday. "This is not an investigation. But I'll do whatever the city attorney advises me to do."
Noting that he is up for reelection in April, Vineyard said that he and Navejas have had a number of other "philosophical differences" in the past. "But I don't think this will hurt me. I have not misused my card."
Navejas, one of two members of a council committee that reviews expenditures, refused to approve the warrant register--a list of the city's monthly bills--at a council meeting earlier this month because of the calls.
"I have a real problem with this," she said then. "I don't think we should have to pay for anything that doesn't pertain to city business."
The council voted 4 to 1 to approve the list, but agreed to Navejas' request that Vineyard be asked to prepare a written explanation and deliver it at Tuesday's meeting. The council further directed city staffers to draft a policy regarding use of municipal credit cards.
Navejas Assailed, Too
While council members agreed that they need to establish a policy outlining the kinds of charges that can be billed to the city, some were critical of Navejas' approach.
"I don't think it was proper to bring it up at a public meeting like that," Councilman Donald Schultze said. "It's unfair to single one person out like that. . . . You should see some of the other calls I've seen: One council person charged a $50 call from Puerto Vallarta to City Hall to complain about the rooms; we've had another call from Yugoslavia to City Hall charged to the city. . . . Where do you draw the line?"
Schultze declined to say who made those long-distance calls.
Vineyard, who will be on the April ballot, along with council members Rosalie Sher and Venn Ferguson, said that if officials can prove that his calls were not city-related, he "will be more than happy to reimburse them."
"I'm not a bit worried about it," Vineyard said in a telephone interview from Sacramento. "I made about 106 calls and I've verified all but five of them. . . . I'm sure by Tuesday I'll have everything straightened out."
In the meantime, Vineyard said he will not discuss any specific calls.
Overall Charges Within Limits
Council members said the city's November and December phone bills, where the charges appeared, were not excessively high. But Navejas said that calls to Meris Laboratories in San Jose and the All-American Exhaust Supply in Bakersfield caught her eye.
"I thought 'Why in the world would the city be calling there?' So I called them up and they didn't know either," she said.
Navejas was the only other council member who had charges appearing on those bills. On two occasions she said she placed calls to the city social service agency, totaling $2. And while attending a conference in Las Vegas, she said, she twice called home to check on her children. Those calls totaled $4.
Johanna Ritter, an employee of All-American Exhaust, said no one at the company remembers why Vineyard called.
"We know he owns a muffler shop and he is a potential customer, but I don't think we've sold him anything yet," Ritter said. "I guess if he was going to buy something from us, he'll never call back now."
Administrators at Meris, which analyzes blood, urine and tissue samples for doctors, said they could not recall a conversation with Vineyard.
Calls to Signal Hill Councilwoman Sara Dodds, which represented most of the charges, were sometimes made several times a day, records show.
'Neighbor Helping Neighbor'
The calls "were definitely city business," Dodds said. "Cities help each other a lot. It was a neighbor-helping-neighbor type of thing."
Dodds said she and Vineyard have sought each other's advice on the hiring of city managers and have discussed many other issues, including problems with the Los Angeles County Fire District and various types of state legislation.
Schultze said it really does not matter why Vineyard called Dodds, or the other places, and he dismissed the issue as "political backbiting."
Vineyard "has been making calls on (the city charge card) for years, so why do you think it's an issue now?" Schultze asked. "I don't want to be the council's next target, so that's all I'm going to say about it. But I think by now the people are pretty tired of this nit-picking."