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Mayor's office lags on records release

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on May 13, 2012.

When Mayor Alvin Brown unveiled his plans for new economic development agencies in March, the legislation authorizing the change had been in the works since December.

During that time, at least three drafts of the bills were produced, according to public records released last week by the Office of General Counsel.

However, in the week leading up to the bills' official filing, chief of staff Chris Hand did not release copies in response to several requests for drafts, as required by state law.

One draft - which appears to be the penultimate version - was hand-delivered to Hand on March 22, a few days before the March 27 unveiling of the mayor's plans, according to the General Counsel documents.

He did not provide the documents, Hand said Saturday, because he misunderstood what was being requested by The Florida Times-Union and other media outlets.

"My understanding is that what you were interested in was the finished draft, " Hand said. "The legislation was undergoing changes until a short time before filing."

The Times-Union was not the only media outlet to have its request for drafts ignored. "We did ask for this and were told it was not available, " said Financial News and Daily Record Publisher Jim Bailey, adding that he believes the administration had generally complied with such requests.

The Daily Record asked at least twice to review the legislation, specifying "even if just a draft, " said Managing Editor Karen Mathis.

Hand said he did not remember getting any verbal requests from the Times-Union before the day the legislation was introduced. He recalled The Daily Record requesting it, but wasn't sure when.

The versions of the legislation provided by the General Counsel's Office were either labeled as or saved under file names that included the word "draft."

The Times-Union began asking for drafts of the legislation almost a week before the unveiling, concluding with a request made about three hours before the news conference announcing the plans.

When told at the news conference that a version of the bill had not been available a few hours earlier, Brown said: "That's news to me."

Brown declined requests to be interviewed Saturday by The Times-Union about his office's failure to release the records. Instead, he sent a statement that said he was committed to transparency.

The documents provided by the General Counsel's Office came in response to two requests to the city's lawyers for public records related to the legislation, one filed to Cindy Laquidara the evening of May 3 and the other to attorney John Germany Tuesday afternoon. The request to Laquidara resulted in most documents being made available Monday afternoon, while the one to Germany led to some documents being provided by 8:30 Wednesday morning and the rest later in the day.

In response to a similar request made Tuesday, Hand was unable to provide records by this weekend. He planned on compiling the documents over the weekend, he said, having on Friday not yet started gathering the information. The Times-Union had asked that the documents be provided by week's end. He said Saturday he did not find the draft that was supposed to be hand delivered to him, nor did he remember receiving it.

The General Counsel-provided documents show that work on what would eventually become the legislation began as early as Dec. 1, when a outline of the plan was circulated among Laquidara; two $1-a-year city employees, Don Shea and Jerry Mallot, who were spearheading the project; and non-employees Ed Burr, Bob Rhodes, Michael Munz and Peter Rummell.

On Jan. 19, Laquidara sent out a rough draft of one of the pieces of legislation to some of that same list, the earliest draft included in the documents.

Much of the discussion that led to the final legislation appears to have taken place among that group. Chief Financial Officer Ronnie Belton was copied on some e-mails, but did not appear to take part in the conversation.

Neither Hand nor Brown was heavily involved in the drafting of the legislation, said Mallot, explaining why Hand was not provided a draft until March 22.

"We were developing approaches to things and ultimately submitted it to the General Counsel's Office, not to the administration, " he said.

Brown also appeared to have left much of the heavy lifting to the team. According to an e-mail from Laquidara on March 26, the mayor had not weighed in on some "policy calls" as of 6:18 the night before the legislation was unveiled.



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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