NAPLES — Collier County's clerk of courts and its top administrators have been known to disagree over some pretty big matters.
Whether or not the clerk can audit books any times he wants. Whether checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars should be written.
Now we learn they can disagree over not-so-big things, too.
The clerk and the county administration, both citing the same ordinance, are charging different amounts to fulfill public records requests, with the clerk's rate about five times higher than that of the county manager's office.
John Barlow, an executive with Safelite Autoglass and before that Western Auto, last month made similar requests for public documents to both the clerk and the county staff.
Barlow, who has taken an interest in the workings of local government, got more than 1,300 documents from the county and only 374 from the clerk. He says he's currently going through all the documents to find out why the same request, copies for correspondence between the clerk's office and the office of County Commissioner Georgia Hiller, yielded such different results.
But one thing jumped out at him right away.
The county billed him $133.45 for the documents it produced, working out to about a dime per document. Brock's office billed him $209.40, or 56 cents per document.
State law and county ordinance allow agencies to charge for staff time associated with fulfilling extensive public records requests. That's where a great deal of the disparity shows up. The county invoice lists four hours of staff time at $28 per hour. Brock's lists one hour of staff time billed at $82 an hour and two hours of another staff member's time billed at $48.70 per hour.
An employee making $82 an hour would be paid about $170,000 a year. One making $48.70 would make $101,000. Are they the best candidates to make copies?
Brock explains that the dollar figures cited account for wages and benefits, so the salaries are about 30 percent lower.
The $82 an hour employee is Crystal Kinzel, Brock's top assistant, whom he said had to look at all the records being released to make sure information statutorily exempt from disclosure, like Social Security numbers and data relating to ongoing audits, wasn't included. The other employee was a computer technician with the skills to search all the agency's email files looking for documents that fit the request. That required combing through the email accounts of all 180 employees of the clerk's office and even some private accounts those employees hold.
"The request he sent was very extensive and I wanted to give him exactly what he wanted," Brock said.
Another difference in the bills shows up in the amount Barlow was charged for the computer disc most of the documents were copied onto. The county charged 50 cents while Brock charged $30.
Brock says that's because the disc he provided had documents sorted by account holder and showed whether they were incoming or outgoing documents. That makes the trail of documents easy to read, as opposed to a long list of unorganized documents.
"You get something from the county, you get jibbidy josh," Brock said.
While Barlow agrees that the material from Brock's office was well-organized, he doesn't believe that justifies the $30 cost of the disc.
"Data transfer from a file onto a CD should have been quick and done electronically, not at a $30 cost," he noted.
Nor does Barlow accept the explanation of the cost of searching out and screening documents. Computer programs available through Microsoft Exchange can be set up to do searches.
"Production of historic emails is a basic requirement for most companies and governments, and it is simple to set up. I cannot agree that someone had to go through 180 employees looking for a match," he said.
Both Brock and Mike Sheffield, assistant to County Manager Leo Ochs, cite county ordinance 2007-327, which institutes a "uniform policy" for fees for providing public records, when explaining the costs charged to Barlow.
The nonuniform results of the uniform policy leaves Barlow scratching his head: "I know the Clerk and the (Board of County Commissioners) agency have been bickering for years, but it seems like they could get together on something as simple as giving the owners, the public, access to their documents at a reasonable and common price."