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The public records slow boat to China

May 24, 2019
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

A dozen business days and multiple formal public records requests later, we received on Wednesday an answer as to why records related to the city's delegation trip to China have not been provided: The documents were shredded.

The requested visa application forms for four of the five individuals going at taxpayer expense were determined, by City Council Office staff, to be administrative records no longer needed. For that reason the paperwork prepared by city staff in the course of conducting city business was destroyed after the Georgia-based company that expedited the processing of the visas confirmed that the originals had been received.

Do we have a problem with this?

Article Photos

Cartoon by Cathy Cochrane

We do, indeed.

On many levels.

First some background.

Cape Coral City Council previously approved a reciprocal visit to sister-city Baise.

That visit proposal was subsequently modified - we don't have the records to tell you when - to include an extra city visit and a Council Office employee Council twice said should not go at taxpayer expense.

The changes included the addition of a one-day visit to Chengdu, where the city's new economic development manager has contacts, and the inclusion of Mayor Joe Coviello's administrative assistant, Pearl Taylor, to the contingent that also includes Community Development Director Vince Cautero, Economic Development Manager Ricardo Noguera and JoAnne Killion, who was instrumental in bringing the proposal for the sister city exchange forward.

Also changed was the projected cost, from the previously discussed $10,000 to $17,000, for travel expenses for the excursion to now take place from May 31- June 7. In-country expenses, including food and accommodations, are to be borne by the host communities as the city of Cape Coral hosted the earlier Chinese delegation visit here.

With the matter coming back to Council on May 6, The Breeze made a request for copies of the visa application forms and related records shortly after noon that day in advance of the evening meeting. It was a pretty routine request; we simply wanted to view the "paper trail" that we thought might shed light on the timeline for a process that appeared to have evolved significantly since it last came before Council.

As it turns out, Council also had some questions and the matter was tabled as more information was sought.

But in a move that surprised at least a Council minority, the trip popped back up again last Monday, May 13.

It was not a publicly noticed agenda item.

It was not placed on the agenda at the beginning of the meeting as an add-on as per Council rules.

But still, Council voted and the measure passed 4-3:

-With Councilmember Rick Williams, who had spoken in opposition previously, out on an excused absence.

- With three Council members, John Gunter, Jessica Cosden and Jennifer Nelson, each protesting both the process and the unscheduled vote, asking that action be delayed a week.

- With those who had previously spoken against provided no option to attend a meeting where trip proponents had obviously been given prior notice.

- And yes, while we were still waiting for the visa applications while the city 1) claimed the city was not the "keeper" of the records; 2) said the request had been filled although the primary component - the visa applications - had not been produced; 3) asked the City Attorney's Office to see if the records were, in fact, public.

In fairness, we did get related emails between the city and the vendor, and emails between the Council Office and the City Attorney's Office after we began to suspect the city was not going to produce the records.

What we did not get - beside the specifically requested applications - was a statutory exemption allowing the city to withhold the records, or the truth: That the documents had been shredded - and apparently shredded before Council met to discuss the modified trip as we were eventually told the documents were disposed of upon receipt that they had been received by the processing vendor.

We learned that yesterday morning when we again attempted to reach the mayor and, while leaving a message asking for a callback, asked Ms. Taylor directly. She said she shredded them as per city policy for administrative records no longer needed.

A followup response - the official one - was provided late Wednesday afternoon from the City Attorney's Office through the City Clerk's:

"It is my understanding that Pearl disposed of copies of the Visa applications for the China trip after she confirmed the applications were received for processing. Pursuant to Florida Statute Section 257.36 (6), public records can only be disposed of in accordance with retention schedules established by the Division of Library and Information Services of the Department of State. It is the opinion of this office, after receiving guidance from the Division of Library and Information Services, that the copies of the visa applications would be Administrative Support Records and were appropriately destroyed once the original applications were received for processing. I have set forth the relevant retention schedule below.

"Please contact (the Breeze) and explain why the City no longer has the applications she requested."

The city also provided what it says is applicable public records compliance policy. (The emphasis is not ours but the state's:)

*"ADMINISTRATIVE SUPPORT RECORDS Item #3*

"This record series consists of records relating to internal administrative activities rather than the functions for which the office exists. These records document day-to-day office management and do not serve as official documentation of office programs. Examples are an individual's daily activity tracking log used to compile periodic activity reports; sign-up sheets for staff use of office equipment or facilities (e.g., reserving a meeting room); and records documenting operating and use of an internal staff library. *Do NOT use this item if records fall under a more appropriate retention schedule item or if the unique content/requirements of the records necessitate that an individual retention schedule be established.* For instance, use Budget Records: Supporting Documents for budget work papers, or use Purchasing Records for records relating to purchase of office supplies; etc.

*"RETENTION:* Retain until obsolete, superseded, or administrative value is lost."

With all due respect to the City Attorney's Office, we suggest a re-reading of the bold text. Heck, we suggest re-reading the entire thing and giving this public records dodge-and-cover another look with less emphasis on after-the-fact justification and more on why, if the legal advisory is defensible, the city did not just come out and say so more than two weeks ago before we all got on this public records slow boat to China.

A couple of things and let us be clear: We are not looking to launch a find-the-scapegoat hunt as this issue is not exactly Shreddergate. Released emails confirm the process of obtaining the visas, to include one for Ms. Taylor, began well before the matter was brought to Council for its consideration.

To be more precise, we do not believe Ms. Taylor acted with ill intent; we do not believe she intentionally destroyed records she knew to be public; nor, as cynical as we tend to be, do we believe she shredded the records to avoid filling the public records request.

We believe she acted in error and that the visa applications are neither "internal administrative activities" nor documents of "day-to-day office management," as the city now contends.

We also believe Council Office staff is, and has been, far too protective of "Council records" that are public records which should be within the purview of the City Clerk's Office.

Nor do we fault the City Clerk's Office or the staff there for its inability to provide the records.

The City Clerk's Office did not have the documents; the City Clerk's Office could not retrieve them.

But going forward, it must be the City Clerk's Office that is the custodian of all records and overseer of records policies. That includes records held by staffers who work within the City Council Office and so directly report to the mayor and/or other members of City Council. Staff-level employees should not be determining what records are wholly "administrative," and at what point they become "obsolete, superseded, or (whose) administrative value is lost."

That is not, nor should it be, their function.

We urge - we strongly urge - Council and City Manager John Szerlag to address this now. The city has probably devoted more staff time running around the answer that the records had been shredded than it will take to address a proper chain of command for its records retention and disposal policy.

And one last thing:

We urge Mayor Coviello to take responsibility for the needless - yes, needless - controversy surrounding this little junket.

As the individual who stage-managed the modified trip through the approval process with a "public input" sideshow, as the official who sidestepped Council to make sure his administrative assistant was included because he couldn't, after all, be expected to take the notes needed to communicate with Council, the mayor needs to own the mess he orchestrated.

That includes the public records snafu within his own office.

Council members who usually are supportive pointed out problems with the process under which the trip came to a vote. They offered the easy solution of a week's delay so the matter could be publicly noticed.

Mayor Coviello chose to ignore them.

He was copied on emails asking the city to provide answers as to why it had not provided the requested public records.

Mayor Coviello chose to tap out.

That's not leadership but a painful illustration of its lack.

And therein lies the blame to be had.

We'll leave that one in Council's court.

-Breeze editorial

 
 
 

 

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