Marty Turner’s data usage cost the city almost $3,000 during a one-year period, according to documents provided to The Dispatch.
Turner, who represents Ward 4 on the city council, regularly used more than 30 gigabytes of data on his city-issued phone in a period from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, according to cell phone bills the city released in response to a public records request.
Turner used a total of 477.2 gigabytes during that span, accounting for 70 percent of the combined total used by all six councilmen. His usage peaked in a three-month period at the end of 2015, with 56 GB in October, 69.3 GB in November and 51.2 GB in December.
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box, who had the second-highest data usage among councilmen for the period, used 98.4 GB.
The average person uses 1 to 2 GB of data per month, according to Verizon Wireless’ website.
Turner’s cell phone usage for that year — including talk, text and data — cost the city $2,850.01, the documents show. Box’s usage cost $979.68.
Turner’s city cell phone usage has been hotly contested since Mayor Robert Smith ordered his access to his city cell phone terminated on June 13. The councilman posted inflammatory statements on his Facebook page on June 11, including calling Mississippi District 41 Rep. Kabir Karriem a “b***h.”
At the time, Smith said he would allow Turner’s phone to be reactivated if Turner turned the phone over to the city’s crime lab for analysis to see if the Facebook posts originated from it. Turner turned the phone in to the city and has since used a personal cell phone.
In October, Turner filed a lawsuit against the mayor and city in Lowndes County Chancery Court for deactivating his phone.
Turner said he regularly used his city phone as a hotspot for teenagers who live in his ward. He said they would use the internet access for research, homework or to play games.
“A lot of times they come over for the weekend,” Turner said. “It’s not one of them. It’s four or five of them. They didn’t have to be at my house. They could be over on 21st Street and still get it.”
Turner said the teenagers once used the Wi-Fi at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. However, he said the church ran them off.
“It’d get kind of dark,” he said. “They would go around the church because they could pick up the Wi-Fi there. When they ran them off, they would ask me what we could do. They liked to play games and stuff. So I would turn the hotspot on my phone…and that eliminated that problem.
“Then the police didn’t have to come to Mt. Zion, and people didn’t have to think that these young black boys were going to break into Mt. Zion,” he added.
Turner said he was aware of his phone usage’s high cost to the city and requested he be switched to an unlimited data plan. According to the records provided, the city switched Turner to an unlimited plan in March.
Still, Turner said he doesn’t think it was a poor use of city resources.
“I think it’s a good use for the city phone,” he said. “I think it was a good use of the taxpayers’ money. If you could keep four or five, sometimes 12, young men who just want to be on the internet occupied, that means they’re not doing anything else.”
Turner has used a personal cell phone since Smith turned off service to his city phone. He said he now has a Wi-Fi hotspot set up that uses internet provided by Cable One.
Smith, in comments provided with the phone records, referenced an earlier Dispatch article where Turner mentioned using his phone as a hotspot for his constituents.
He said that use represented an unlawful donation of municipal property. Smith’s comment referenced a 2014 opinion from Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.
“Any use of a municipally-issued mobile phone or reimbursement for expenses should be limited to municipal purposes alone,” the opinion says. “All expenses paid by the municipality that are attributed to personal use would result in an unlawful donation and should promptly be reimbursed to the municipality.”
Smith said in his comments that the AG opinion reinforced his decision to disable Turner’s phone.
“I believe I was right to disengage service to Mr. Turner’s phone to avoid any further unlawful use,” Smith said.
Turner, however, took issue with Smith’s assertion that he used his phone unlawfully.
“If that’s wrong, then I’ll be wrong every day of the week,” Turner said. “If the taxpayer is paying for the phone, they’re paying for the hotspot. So guess what? Their children are getting to use the hotspot that they’re paying for. That’s not unlawful.”
Turner’s lawsuit questions Smith’s authority to disable his phone.
The city’s response to the public records request included a portion of the city charter that speaks to the mayor’s executive authority to make sure the city’s “ordinances, rules and regulations” are carried out.
In his comments, Smith said he acted within that authority.
“As mayor of this city, I have a responsibility to see that all regulations of the city are faithfully executed,” Smith said.
Still, Turner said that city regulations can’t apply to him as an elected official.
“I am not an employee,” Turner said. “I’m an elected official. The people trust me to make sound decisions, and that’s a sound decision. If I created a hotspot here, and I’ve got 15 children to pick up the hotspot and they’re searching the internet or playing games, you know what they’re not doing? They’re not breaking into your house. They’re not getting into any trouble. I think I’m doing these children a service.”
Local attorney Corky Smith, who is defending the city against Turner’s lawsuit, declined to comment on what bearing the phone records may have on the case. However, he noted the lawsuit has not yet been served to the city.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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