County Inspector General Initiates Audit of Manatee County Public Records Requests

Dawn Kitterman
BRADENTON — Last week, the Manatee Clerk of Court, Division of the Inspector General, delivered a memorandum to the Manatee County Administration and county commission announcing the IG’s office has initiated a "project to review the process for responding to public records requests."

In recent months, growing questions have surrounded the county’s procedures for public records retention and production. From questions about "mystery" record queries, alleged deletions of past queries performed on public records, preservation of public records, to delay and partial production of requested public records, the county's handling of public records requests has been called to question by numerous parties. There is also the matter of a recent civil suit brought by a citizen against the county in which the court sided with the plaintiff, finding the county had violated public records law

On May 20, County Clerk and Comptroller Angel Colonneso included in an emailed letter to Manatee County Commissioners several points of "grave concern" uncovered by her in her role as county clerk. Among several concerns listed, Colonneso wrote, "My office has since learned of what appears to be serious issues with how the county handles public records requests and I have turned my concerns over to the Inspector General Division."

TBT became aware of the memorandum from the IG announcing the audit during a BOCC budget work session on Wednesday. County Administrator Scott Hopes referenced a "correspondence from across the street" while answering commissioners’ questions about the Division of Records Management. 

During the work session, some commissioners raised questions to the administrator as to why the county’s Division of Record’s Management had been moved to reside under the oversight of the County Administration. Formerly, Records Management was a division under the Department of Property Management. 

Further confusing commissioners is the fact that records management was initially moved by the current administration from property management to county administration—with the query portion of its process being "outsourced" to the department of information technology—but was then moved again to reside under former Deputy County Administrator and CFO Jan Brewer. Brewer, who recently resigned, oversaw the departments of IT and financial management. Records management has since been moved back to reside under the oversight of the county administration. 

"Can someone explain to me why records management is under the county administrator?" Commissioner Carol Whitmore asked during the budget work session. 

Whitmore detailed her understanding that there may have existed a temporary need to place the division under administration while "quality controls" were reviewed and re-established. 

"It doesn’t make sense to be under administration," Whitmore added. "It’s been under property management as long as I have been here." 

Commissioner George Kruse also requested clarification. 

"Is records staying under administration? I had heard—at one point—it was supposed to go under IT. Did I miss something?" Kruse asked. 

Hopes answered the commissioners’ questions by explaining that a "major portion" of public records procedure is carried out by IT, but that Records Manager Debra Scaccianoce reports to Deputy Administrator Robert Reinshuttle. 

Commissioner Reggie Bellamy, upon hearing that information from Hopes, expressed his desire to see records management separated from administration. 

"It’s an administrative function," Hopes responded, adding that the division of records management "got cleaned up." 

Commissioner Misty Servia commented that it was her understanding that records management was under the oversight of former CFO Brewer. Hopes confirmed that the division was, momentarily, moved under the oversight of Brewer. Hopes told the board that Brewer had requested that the division of records management report to her while the county developed new "controls" for the public records request process. 

Hopes said new controls were needed due to previously identified issues with the preservation of public records and the procedures for recordkeeping of public record requests. After those controls were established, Brewer reported back to the administration suggesting Records Management be returned to Deputy Reinshuttle as the necessary new "controls" had been put into place, Hopes said. 

It was during this discussion on Wednesday that Hopes referenced the memorandum from the clerk’s IG.

"All of you got a correspondence from across the street… and not only do we look forward to that assessment, but we will have an outside auditor that audits our processes and ensures that the controls that have been put in place are working," Hopes said. 

It was unclear from the administrator’s comments whether the county itself intends to pay a firm to independently audit its records management division and process separate from the IG’s project review—or if he was referring to the IG’s audit as the "outside auditors." 

Hopes told the commissioners that he believes they will find, with the results of a review, that his administration has successfully put into place a system and process for public records that is of "high integrity."

According to information on the Manatee Clerk of the Court website, "The Division of Inspector General provides independent, objective assurance and consulting services which are designed to add value and improve the operations of Manatee County Government. As a service to management and the taxpayers of Manatee County, the Division of Inspector General measures and evaluates the efficiency and effectiveness of various Manatee County departments' and agencies' internal controls. These internal controls include a complex environment of federal, state, and local laws, regulations, policies, and procedures."

While the IG has the authority to conduct internal investigations, investigations and audits are frequently confused as the same procedure—or as interchangeable terms. 

An audit of the IG is a routine function and responsibility conducted based on annual risk analysis. An audit or evaluation is conducted to examine organizational program performance or financial management matters, typically of a systemic nature. Areas of high risk and/or concern (departments, divisions, procedures, finance, etc.) are then slated and strategically planned for review. An investigation is carried out to resolve specific allegations, complaints, or information concerning possible violations of law, regulation, or policy.

A list of audit reports completed by the IG are published and available online through the Manatee Clerk of Court website. Published audit reports can be viewed here

An audit is a more transparent process for the entity or department under review, where an investigation may be carried out without the awareness of the parties or departments who are the subject of the investigation. An audit or project is announced, and a plan is detailed and shared for the audit which includes the objective, scope, and methodology. 

The memorandum delivered to Manatee County by the IG’s office last week outlined these specifics of the initiated project review: 

The project objective is to determine the efficiency and effectiveness of the public records request process, including, but not limited to the following: 
  • Verifying the completeness of the responsive documents found and remitted to the requestor 
  • Determining the timeliness of responding to and fulfilling public record requests 
  • Verifying compliance with applicable policies, laws, and regulations 
The scope of the project will include examining the public records request process for the period June 1, 2021, through May 31, 2022. The process will be evaluated through interviews with personnel and management, detailed testing of requests, and a review of policies and procedures."

While an Inspector General’s audit is not the same as an investigation, the process of an audit can sometimes lead to an investigation should the audit uncover information concerning possible violations of law, regulation, or policy. Per Florida Statute 119.0713(2)(b), any information received, produced, or derived from an audit or investigation is confidential until the audit or investigation report is completed, and the report becomes final. 

To read the June 7, Inspector General memorandum in full, click here

To replay the portion of the discussion about Records Management from the BOCC budget work session Wednesday, click the video below. 

Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter for The Bradenton Times. She covers local government and entertainment news. She can be reached at [email protected]

Reader Comments
Paul Finer
JUN 12, 2022  •  The IG has a lot of ability to audit and investigate. With a billion dollar budget and thousands of county employees and contractors, there should be substantive findings regularly. Where are such findings?