A computer company that holds a virtual monopoly on Salt Lake's computer contracts has volunteered to loan computers valued at $8,000 apiece for the home use of the city's elected officials.
Mayor Palmer DePaulis has turned down the opportunity, saying he doesn't need it. In addition, he is concerned about the perception of the loan."I think there is a perception problem with having a computer that is sponsored by a well-known manufacturer of computers in an elected official's home," said Mike Zuhl, chief of staff for the mayor. "Just from his (the mayor's) own standpoint, he felt uncomfortable about having a computer in his own home.
"In effect, they (Unisys) have a monopoly on city business right now."
Four members of the City Council Sydney Fonnes-beck, Tom Godfrey, Alan Hardman and L. Wayne Hor-rocks have signed up for computer training to take advantage of the one-year loan from the Unisys Corp. Fonnesbeck said having a computer will help her be more responsive to the needs of her constituents.
The other council members Roselyn Kirk, Florence Bittner and Willie Stoler say they don't need computers at home.
The loan of home computers comes at the same time some members of the City Council are lobbying for private offices, saying they need a place to do city business in City Hall instead of in their homes. Bittner, Horrocks, Hardman and Stoler say the council needs private offices.
Kirk said she perceives the loan as nothing more than a sales pitch by Unisys to get the council to purchase individual computers for itself. "I've had questions about it from the beginning." And, she said, the part-time council has a full-time staff to do its computer work.
According to contracts filed in the city recorder's office, the city has paid Unisys Corp. more than $500,000 in monthly maintenance and licensing fees since July 1984. The city has also agreed to purchase equipment and software worth more than $10 million from the company since 1984.
City Attorney Roger Cutler said the loan of computers isn't a violation of state conflict of interest statutes, as long as they are used solely for city business. State law sets a cap of $50 on gifts that elected officials can accept that would tend to influence their official duties.
"The issue is, in my mind, whether they are a loan in a non-official capacity," Cutler said. "Is it a status thing, or is there a legitimate business reason?"
Cutler believes that if the council legitimately needs personal computers, then the city ought to consider purchasing them.
Rodger Neeve, director of the city's administrative services department, said the loan is a way for the city to get free national publicity as a well-managed municipality. "I think the idea is Unisys wants to make Salt Lake City a showcase city for their product," Neeve said.
Neeve said he follows the legal bidding procedure to select computer companies and equipment, and the City
Council just appropriates money to buy the equipment.
Council Chairman Tom Godrey said as a council member he will never make a decision that could be influenced by familiarity with one particular computer system. "I am never going to be making decisions on which computer company we will deal with. We will have recommendations from people who are knowledgeable in the field."
Although city administrators follow strict legal bidding procedures regarding contract purchases, the loaned computers could tend to influence decision making, Cutler said.
Fonnesbeck said the loan of the computers has been an excellent opportunity. She said it will be most helpful when residents call her after working hours with complaints, and she can monitor the progress of a city program through the computer.
"I have found that it's extremely helpful. I can produce some pretty snazzy handouts for my neighborhood meetings. But I don't think I'd ever vote to expend a lot of city funds providing them for elected officials," she said.
Godfrey agrees. "I would probably vote against that."