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Public records tap dance

Update: Councilmembers Leon, Erbrick have volunteered their records; Carioscia has no travel to report

June 24, 2016
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

The city of Cape Coral has no ability to readily access basic records pertaining to council travel.

It will take the city 80 hours - the equivalent of two full work weeks - to retrieve records showing who went where, for how long and for how much, for last year and this year to date.

When records are this difficult to recover, the city sends an email to let you know 1) you're going to have to wait and 2) it's going to cost you. Probably a lot more than the standard 15 cents a page alloted by state statute.

In this case, nearly $1,700.

... "The approximate amount due to complete this request is $1,675.59. (1st hour is free, 79 hours at $21.21 per hour)..." a June 14 City of Cape Coral email response for council travel records states.

So, if we want to inform the public where the money went, pay up. With half in advance.

Some back story:

The issue of council travel has been an on-going one, and readers, both online and through calls, have again questioned both expenses and time spent on the road.

Fair enough.

With the current fiscal year at the halfway mark, we agree it is time for what should be a fairly routine update. A call to the city's public information office on June 1 confirmed it should be a fairly easy request to fill, and we were asked to send a written request that could be forwarded.

Although not required by state statute, we did, requesting ... "documents related to council travel, fiscal year 2016 and fiscal year 2015, both fiscal (expenses) and calendar (time spent.)" We also requested "any related pre- or post-travel memos or reports related to travel taken on behalf of the city."

We received a followup call from the city council office saying it would take an estimated 400 hours to search for all the records, including emails. Could we narrow the request?

We thought it was pretty narrow but the answer was yes. The focus of the request was specifically to compare last year's travel - who went, where they went, how long they stayed and how much it cost - to this year to date. We further limited the request to overnight travel only. Just those basics with the understanding that if details were sought on any particular trip, we would follow up. We made it clear we were not requesting an 18-month email search and then boiled it down further, in writing: "specifically overnight travel and related expenses, if applicable, all members of council, 2015 and year to date. (It is our understanding some overnight or longer travel did not incur cost.) We will follow up if we need additional information."

We were told that would be a lot easier.

We would agree that 80 hours - a new estimate that took, ironically, nearly two weeks of back-and-forth to arrive at- is significantly less than 400.

It's also another slice of the same cow pie being served up here.

One, Council has a simple reporting process for travel in place. Council members submit information for a form that includes the name of the person traveling, where and why they are going and whether registration or hotel reservations are required. There's a line for per diem allowances, whether they need a city pool vehicle and a P card for gas. Upon return, they are to attach any receipts, which are to be reconciled so personal expenses are not included.

The travel sheets are to be processed by council office staff and submitted to finance.

Two, when this issue continued to crop up last year, council staff was asked to keep a running spread sheet so that members could monitor travel and make sure that, as a body, they were not exceeding budget.

And three, assuming the data that is available is complete and accurate, the amount of money council members have spent on travel is relatively small as is the overall number of trips.

While the city was not able to easily access its own records, a look at the "open records" component of its website shows a total of $24,700.72 was spent last fiscal year on council travel. Another $7,993.10 was spent on training and seminars. This year to date, the website shows $14,072.12 for travel; $5,537.25 for training and seminars.

The city's fiscal year begins each Oct. 1 and ends on the Sept. 30 following.

A couple of things:

Taxpayers have the right to know how their money is being spent, who is spending it and for what purpose. Down to the dollar.

They should not have to pay twice - once through hefty payroll costs and again through extensive records fees - because it's just too darn difficult and time consuming to pull up records for the pesky public paying the bills.

Next, city staff can't keep track of where public money is being spent in a manner that allows ready access by person, by department, by budgetary line item or by vendor?

We find that a tad hard to swallow.

We can.

Most businesses can.

And the city certainly should be able to without resorting to the old pay-to-play public records tap dance.

Council itself might just want to fill in that dance card ASAP.

- Breeze editorial

Update: Councilmember Richard Leon has sent us his travel records since he took office in 2013. The total is $3,780.29 with the "big costs" being registration fees. (Details to follow.)



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