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Tired of your phone? Don't toss it; trade it

Carolina Coutinho had been putting up with poor cell phone service for six months. Her phone worked fine at her parents' home in New Jersey and on the Rutgers University campus, where Coutinho is a senior. But service at her new apartment was spotty.

Carolina Coutinho had been putting up with poor cell phone service for six months.

Her phone worked fine at her parents' home in New Jersey and on the Rutgers University campus, where Coutinho is a senior. But service at her new apartment was spotty. She sometimes missed calls from her employer. She wanted to switch carriers but didn't want to pay the $200 early termination fee for breaking her contract.

About a month ago, a co-worker told her about Celltradeusa.com, a Web site where consumers can swap cell phone contracts. In about a week, she found someone to assume the 13 months left on her contract.

"It was like eBay. People were bidding on my phone," the 23-year-old said.

Plenty of American consumers are in a similar predicament. A U.S. Public Interest Research Group study two years ago found that nearly half of cell phone customers would switch carriers, or at least think about it, if they didn't have to pay an early termination fee. Considering the tens of millions of cell phone users in the United States, that's a lot of unhappy customers.

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Online companies now match buyers and sellers of cell phone contracts. Of course, cell phone owners could find a friend or relative to take over contract on their own, but the Internet sites can make the search easier.

Celltradeusa.com and Cellswapper.com are the two major players in this fledgling industry. Both charge around $20 to the consumer unloading a contract once one or more prospects are found.

That's a lot cheaper than termination fees that run $150 to $200 per phone line, according to Eric Wurtenberg, co-founder of Celltradeusa.com. "Family plans have three or four lines. That's $600 or $800," he says.

POOR SERVICE,UNHAPPY CUSTOMERS

Most people are eager to dump their contracts because of poor reception, Wurtenberg says. They might move and find that the phone service no longer works well in their new house or apartment, he says.

Buyers often want to want test-drive a carrier or just don't want to commit to one for years, says Adam Korbl, co-founder of Cellswapper.com. Plus, by assuming another's contract, buyers can avoid a $35 activation fee.

Celltradeusa and Cellswapper work much the same. Cell phone owners post ads detailing the contract terms. They often offer incentives, such as paying one month's worth of service or throwing in the phone for free. Postings often include a photo of the phone and comments, like this one on Celltradeusa:

"The phone is in fair condition. It has been dropped in the water but it works, a few small nicks and dings nothing major. I use the phone still."

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Buyers shop the Web sites for free. A buyer and seller negotiate a deal on their own and then contact the phone company.

The buyer must pass a credit check. Consumers who have been rejected for a full contract because of poor credit often find they don't have the same problem when taking over a contract for a short time, Korbl says.

Buyers can bring their old telephone number with them, Wurtenberg says. Phone policies generally require customers transferring their contact to forfeit their number, but some persistent consumers have managed to keep theirs, he says.

Once the phone company transfers the contract, the seller is off the hook.

Coutinho says the first nibble on her phone contract petered out. She reached a deal with the next person and spent about an hour transferring her contract. "It was great. I saved $180," she says, after paying the $20 fee.

Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Sherri Cunningham says those assuming contracts should be wary of taking over a stranger's phone that might have been damaged.

Verizon and other phone companies also say they've already adopted more flexible terms to retain customers. Verizon, for instance, now has a declining termination fee that starts at $175 and drops $5 for every month of service.

Joe Ridout, a spokesman with Consumer Action in San Francisco, says the trading sites can be an inexpensive escape hatch. But consumers have another outlet, too.

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When phone companies suddenly changes terms, customers usually get a limited time to exit a contract without incurring a termination fee, Ridout says. Make sure you read notices from companies so you are aware of these exit opportunities, Ridout says.

U.S. PIRG's Ed Mierzwinski says cell-phone swap shops can help a few people, but don't resolve the big problem.

"Early termination fees should be banned so consumers can shop around," he says.

A cabal. A circus. Leaderless. Bogged down by a Duluth-Iron Range rivalry.

These are words used to describe the St. Louis County Board by observers and some of its own members.

Since at least December, the seven-member board of full-time elected officials has faced a barrage of negative issues and publicity. A lawsuit by newly elected County Attorney Melanie Ford, seeking a salary increase, divided the board. In February, a remark by Commissioner Keith Nelson that he would have supported slavery if supported by the majority of his constituents brought widespread criticism.

Harassment complaints filed by county employees against Commissioners Steve Raukar and Dennis Fink and a debate over studying whether to divide the largest county east of the Mississippi River have, according to some board members, triggered the most-recent friction.

Why all the turmoil?

Perhaps it's no surprise that commissioners are divided even on that question.

"There's four people who have, since the complaints were made, formed a little cabal and are freezing out the other three of us," Commissioner Peg Sweeney of Duluth said. "And, quite frankly, they are going to render the three hardest-working commissioners useless with their frivolity."

But Mike Forsman of Ely -- one of the four commissioners in question -- said he sees four elected officials "trying to get a hold of the reins of the county" from labor and Duluth-centered interests.

The other three Sweeney referred to are Fink, Nelson and Raukar.

"It's been extremely divisive issues," said Commissioner Bill Kron, chairman of the board, "and divisive issues can bring about bad behavior and less-than-stellar reactions in the best of people. Distrust and misunderstanding can be unfortunate byproducts."

"I've been on boards that are pretty dysfunctional," Commissioner Steve O'Neil said. "We're not there yet, but we're heading that way."

North-South divide

Forsman said the conflicts stem partly from a feeling that northern county needs at times are ignored.

One of those is the need for road and bridge repairs in the county, largely in the north. Northern commissioners tend to support raising an additional $1.8 million in property taxes for transportation needs, and they know Fink will join them in that support, Forsman said.

Neither Kron, O'Neil nor Sweeney -- all up for election in 2008 -- has committed yet to the transportation plan, Forsman said.

"None of the four commissioners are getting together to discuss strategy," Forsman said. "But there's a recognition by me that Commissioner Fink will support dollars for infrastructure."

Fink said many of the conflicts followed the departure of Mitchell, whom Ford defeated in November. Mitchell, who had been county attorney since 1978, provided the board with leadership and direction, Fink said.

"In my opinion, the County Board is made up of seven solid individuals who each has an idea of where they are going," he said. "But there's no dominant leader, and the board didn't need a dominant leader when Alan Mitchell was around because of his experience and ability to interpret the law."

UNION influence

Forsman and Nelson both said the American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees, which represents about 1,900 county employees, is behind some of the division.

"I do believe there's a group out of AFSCME that is trying to control the board," Forsman said. "There are people outside the county who think they are going to run the show, I believe. And if four commissioners are trying to get ahold of the reins of the county and others are going to be puppets of that group, that's fine. But what I'm seeing is four commissioners, and four commissioners only, that are trying to take charge of the county and not be puppets of a small group out of Duluth."

Nelson said AFSCME worked to defeat Fink in 2006 and supported Ford in her campaign to unseat Mitchell.

Fink's re-election was a blow to the union, Nelson said.

When votes from Forsman, Kron, O'Neil and Sweeney to increase Ford's salary trumped "no" votes by Fink, Raukar and Nelson, the union thought it had won an important battle with the board, Nelson said.

"The same group that has nearly destroyed the fiscal ability of Duluth is not going to do it in the county -- not on my watch," Nelson said. "They feel their win at the attorney's position gives them a strong edge. But the fact of the matter is that the County Board is going to be run by the County Board."

Marsh Stenerson, an AFSCME field representative who oversees labor negotiations for about 1,400 county employees, said the board has brought controversy on itself.

"It's amusing all the problems in Northeastern Minnesota elected officials like to lay at the feet of AFSCME," Stenerson said. "AFSCME did not make that [slavery] comment. And my understanding is that the two employees who filed the complaints are not AFSCME members. There has been no concerted effort to embarrass county commissioners. They have done quite a good job themselves."

Stenerson, who often attends board meetings, said conflict among commissioners is the worst that he's seen in 18 years as a union official.

"As a citizen, it looks to me like a circus. It's very demoralizing to me as a resident of St. Louis County. There have always been differences, but not this kind of division," Stenerson said. "I've never seen this kind of junior-high behavior."

O'Neil, who was supported by AFSCME in his run for County Board, said: "I think AFSCME is being used as a scapegoat."

POLITICS AS USUAL

Political power struggles within the County Board aren't unusual, said Herb Lamppa of Tower, a county commissioner for 12 years.

"Every commissioner is guilty to a degree of defending what they believe is in the best interest of the people of their district," Lamppa said. "But even then, we talked with each other. We were there to serve the people and not get into all this other crap."

Lamppa served on the board with, among others, Gary Doty, Liz Prebich, Bill Kron and Lloyd Shannon.

"There was always a certain amount of disagreement," Lamppa said. "And there was always a certain level of 'Duluth versus the Range,' but we always resolved it. We never got to fighting. There are so many positive things to do, but when you get bogged down in those other issues, you don't get the work done for the people that is supposed to be done."

O'Neil, who has been on the board for about 2½ years, said meetings have become "very uncomfortable and very tense."

"At times there's a tension that impacts me," O'Neil said. "I don't have a problem with people who have passion, but when people are yelling and calling each other names, I think that's out of line. As a board, it's hard to be productive when there's that kind of tension."

On Tuesday, for example, Nelson heatedly told O'Neil that after 2½ years on the board, O'Neil "still doesn't get it."

censure avoided

During Tuesday's County Board meeting, Nelson introduced a resolution to censure Fink in connection with the harassment complaint against him.

O'Neil and Kron voted in favor. Fink abstained. Sweeney was absent due to a family medical issue. Nelson, Forsman and Raukar then voted against the resolution, killing it.

Some commissioners said the motion was a ploy to assure that Fink would not be censured. Having once been defeated, a move to censure Fink cannot come up again, Kron said.

A week ago, the board on a 3-3 vote, failed to pass a resolution that would have censured Raukar. Raukar abstained.

"I think that the whole mess ... has rendered us dysfunctional," Sweeney said. "We have employees that have been wronged here, and we have responsibilities to them. All of them [Fink, Forsman, Nelson and Raukar] have their jobs and none of them have to run for re-election; and if they would just apologize and say, 'I will go to some [anti-harassment] classes,' the people will forgive them. The people will forgive you if you own up, but this is totally disrupting everything because they won't."

Since the complaints were filed, Sweeney said, Fink, Forsman, Nelson and Raukar have formed a voting bloc.

"I do think they've banded together because of what's happened," Sweeney said, "and I do think it's an orchestrated thing. It seems like the good old boys are sticking together."

looking to THE FUTURE

The board doesn't meet again until Sept. 4. On Sept. 11, commissioners must decide on a preliminary tax levy for its 2008-2009 budget.

Several commissioners are optimistic that the two-week break -- and a common goal of approving a budget -- will help bring the board together.

"I think that after the summer break and with budget and levy decisions to make, the board will settle down," Nelson said. "I believe we have a good board. I may have differences with some on the board, but the voice of seven is stronger than the voice of one."

Strength and unity will return to the board when commissioners hold themselves accountable and recognize the need to pass a code of conduct and ethics, Kron said. He has pushed for passage of such a code, but has met with resistance from some commissioners.

"We will then be in a better position to combat the real issues, not each other," said Kron. "This would send a much-needed positive message to our entire organization and the people we represent."

LEE BLOOMQUIST can be reached weekdays at (800)368-2506, (218)744-2354 or by e-mail at lbloomquist@duluthnews.com .

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