When Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a 50 percent reduction in state-issued cellphones to save money, his office said it would consider exempting employees who needed phones for public safety or other "critical state operations."
From the California Highway Patrol to the California Commission on the Status of Women, dozens of state agencies and departments thought that meant them. They requested thousands of exemptions, peppering their appeals with such watchwords as "urgent" and "mission critical."
Confiscating BlackBerrys, the Department of Finance said, would "significantly compromise" its ability to respond quickly, including on nights and weekends, to questions from the finance director, Brown's office and the Legislature. The order might also affect its ability to "retain competent mid-level managers," the department said, while discouraging lower-level staff from moving up.
The California Horse Racing Board, which oversees track safety, warned of even more dire consequences should Brown force employees to go without air cards or share. "Sharing could prevent quick response, with the potential to have unsafe conditions," the board wrote, "resulting in injury or death to equine or rider."
The Department of Finance's appeal was granted. The Horse Racing Board's, Brown's office said, was denied.
Brown's January cellphone order, the first of his third term, was one of several popular, highly symbolic measures used by the Democratic governor to demonstrate his frugality in California's budget crisis. The order was widely praised, including by state employees.
But exemption requests provided in response to a California Public Records Act request suggest how tightly many employees clung to their phones.
"These departments get an award for creative writing," said Michael Semler, a government professor at California State University, Sacramento. "Everybody says, 'I'm worth it.' "
Brown's office said it has eliminated 32,858 phones, meeting Brown's 50 percent goal and projecting annual savings of $12 million. Of the 5,055 exemption requests the administration said it received, it granted 3,987, mostly for public safety.
The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, whose request was largely approved, argued undercover agents "routinely conduct investigations, serve search warrants and make spontaneous on-view arrests for dangerous illegal activities including alcohol, narcotics, gang activity, organized crime, illegal weapons, fights, disorderly activity, gambling, and prostitution all hours of the day and night."
Not considered to have a sufficient public safety need despite its best effort to persuade Brown otherwise was the Office of Exposition Park Management, which oversees the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and other venues. The office noted in its request for seven BlackBerrys that more than 32 gangs are active in the area, and it said phones are necessary to communicate during large events late at night.
Furthermore, the office said, Exposition Park is considered by federal officials to be "the 52nd most vulnerable target for a terrorist act."
"Fluid communication," the office said, "is vital for the department and the park."
Brown granted the Department of Parks and Recreation all but 50 of its 362 exemption requests. Parks spokesman Roy Stearns said rangers are "out there with a badge and a gun, and often alone." Parks officials suggested eliminating some land lines instead.
The Delta Stewardship Council sought exemptions for a handful of phones, too. But it also asked to keep six Samsung Galaxy tablets. Council members live throughout the state, spokesman Eric Alvarez said, and "they needed to get these things so that the council members could do their jobs." The technology also reduced printing and mailing costs, he said.
The council's request was denied, as was the Department of Personnel Administration's request for 11 BlackBerrys for legal division employees. The department said access to email is critical for lawyers traveling or in court, especially less-experienced ones.
"From a management perspective, we are also concerned that some of the more inexperienced attorneys need email and cellphone access while in hearings to be able to ask urgent questions of their supervisors as they arise," the department said.
Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said some departments "were clearly more helpful than others" in carrying out Brown's order.
"It's clearly not an easy task," he said. "There's a lot of resistance to change." Still, Westrup said, "We're pleased we hit our goal."
As for the Horse Racing Board?
Executive Director Kirk Breed said in a letter to The Bee that the board determined it could comply with the order without risking fatalities.
"We can now state that we will fully comply with the order without the need for exemptions," he wrote. "And we will do so without compromising the health and safety of industry participants."