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The city can do better - much better

March 8, 2019
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

When it comes to public records access, the city of Cape Coral has earned an "A."

For abysmal.

Not because the City Clerk's Office, the primary custodian of public records, is difficult to work with.

Article Photos

Cartoon by Cathy Cochrane

The office is not.

Not because the Cape Coral Police Department is slow to release reports or notify the public of arrests or incidents.

The department is not and is, in fact, pretty proactive.

Nor is there a whole lot of difficulty in getting questions answered by city Public Information or Fire Department spokespersons.

The passing grade, though, pretty much stops there.

The city of Cape Coral's ability to retrieve and produce records from its various administrative offices - a primary source - is cumbersomely slow.

And we would rather poke ourselves in the eye with a stick than wait - and - wait - and wait some more- for the release of what should be pretty routine records from the City Council offices.

One case in point, perhaps a small one as records requests go, but the most recent, by not only The Breeze but some taxpayers who also like to follow the money.

It took two months almost to the day to pry enough rudimentary records from the city regarding the recent visit of Chinese "sister city" delegates from Baise to piece together an overview of costs and public and private participation.

The initial request was made Jan. 9 in advance of the Feb. 25-26 visit. The last trickle of information - who attended what events on behalf of the city - was provided Thursday after another request was made March 5 after a scant vendor-event-cost breakdown was finally provided.

For those who have been waiting, the city expended an estimated $6,596.39 of its Council-approved $10,000 budget for various meals, lodging at the Westin ($1,710 pending final receipt), video and photography from HD PR Group ($2,405, pending payment); gifts ($80 to Florida Coastal Fabrications and $130 for gift baskets, no vendor listed, with the city "still checking" regarding donated items.)

A list of "meals/food/events" sponsors for the two-day whirlwind tour of the city was also provided March 5.

Rainbow Project, the Charter School Authority, Lee Health, Ecological Labs and Big Blue Brewing, which the city-provided records also lists as having been paid $350 for hors d'oeuvres, are listed as sponsors with most being or representing places visited.

Now the city has said it needed time to compile cost tallies - and they are not done yet.

Fair enough.

As a business we understand costs must be finalized.

We also understand how project costs are approved, at least in the private sector.

No reservation documents, no purchase orders, no vendor agreements, no pre-event cost accounting or sponsorships correspondence in advance of the visit?

Either this is the worst meeting planning ever, city cost controls are lax, its departmental records custodians lack training or, perhaps, those custodians simply choose to back-burner annoying records requests, especially for pet projects or potentially "controversial" issues.

Such as salary and compensation information.

Applications submitted for key positions.

Travel expenditures.

This weeks-long quest for the paper trail or specifics relating to a relatively small-cost city project is, unfortunately, not an anomaly.

Why do we care?

This is your money.

And these are your records.

Florida is known across the country for its longstanding emphasis on public records and open meetings laws.

Bundled together in statutes know as "Government-in-the-Sunshine" Laws, these mandates are intended to protect the public's right to know.

The public's right to know how its money is spent by the government boards it elects and the bureaucratic bodies it pays for.

The public's right to know how decisions are made and the path taken - from staff-level proposals to public hearings to the actual vote - for every government action.

Despite the proliferation of electronic records and the ease with which these documents can now be provided, these rights continue to erode.

It was erosion, in fact, that led the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors to initiate a statewide awareness event way back in 2002 "in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to the state's public records law."

"Sunshine Sunday" expanded nationwide a few years later with the first "Sunshine Week" in 2005.

Traditionally timed around James Madison's birthday and National Freedom of Information Day, this year's Sunshine Week opens Sunday with newspapers across the country taking part.

And so this weekend we call attention to the fact that our city can do better - much better on the public records front.

How so?

The city's administrative management and Council have full control of the city's public records procedures, i.e. how Cape Coral chooses to meet applicable state statutes.

Cape Coral City Council, in fact, sets - or should set - policy.

Given that most of Council's individual members have demonstrated a commitment to transparency - let us be clear we have few complaints there - it should be easy for the elected board to collectively emphasize that commitment within its own offices.

We include within Council purview the more timely posting of Council meeting agendas and backup materials as well.

Regarding the inter-departmental drag-and-lag, there is credit where credit is due.

Interim City Clerk Kimberly Bruns and Assistant City Manager Connie Barron, the city's former public information officer, took time to listen to concerns about the time it takes to receive records that are departmentally maintained.

They have agreed to take a look at an in-house policy that gives department records keepers "up to three days" to deliver requested public documents to the City Clerk's Office, which then fills the public records request.

We thank Ms. Bruns and Ms. Barron both.

But we also urge them to make this a priority - that long-standing, gotten-progressively-worse policy is far beyond the Florida Attorney General's Office's interpretation of "reasonable time," which the AGO has defined as the time it takes to get up and retrieve the records.

Cape Coral can do better.

Much better.

And we, as a community, must demand it

The system is about to get tested and tested hard.

Cape Coral taxpayers agreed in November to tax ourselves to the tune of $60 million to fund the city's Parks Master Plan.

The city has promised full accountability - and a full accounting of expenditures "down to the last penny."

Expect to be held to that promise of full transparency.

The public is going to demand it - along with the records to corroborate

Let the Sunshine in.

-Breeze editorial

 
 
 

 

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