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Technology woes spark heated Bradenton Beach debate

By Merab-Michal Favorite, Islander Reporter

City clerk Jamie Anderson makes a presentation April 29 for a new data system that she said would be more efficient for record storage. Islander Photo: Merab-Michal Favorite

Bradenton Beach commissioners aren’t ready to throw out their old information technology for a new system, despite problems within the city’s outdated computer server.

Commissioners and staff are experiencing technical issues, including email deficiencies and inadequate digital storage capacity.

Even more concerning, some commissioners are using personal email accounts when responding to the public, a civil servant no-no, according to city clerk Jamie Anderson, who says the emails must be stored to preserve the public record.

“I am very uncomfortable with you using your personal Gmail accounts when dealing with city issues,” Anderson said. “Those emails are public record and saving them is required by law.”

But commissioners declined to implement a new program on learning that former Commissioner Ric Gatehouse, the city’s longtime tech administrator, would not turn over control to Anderson.

Gatehouse currently acts as custodian for the city’s email accounts and he owns the city’s domain names — the URL addresses on the World Wide Web.

“Since the domain was set up with the city over 12 years ago, I have acted as custodian, in control of registration,” he wrote commissioners in an email. “I act as the city agent for this domain. That means, I do the bidding of the commission and not that of any individual.”

The board voted for Anderson and Gatehouse to work on a compromise during an April 29 work session. But on learning Gatehouse was unresponsive in the days after vote, the matter turned into a heated debate at the May 1 commission meeting.

“This decision is hindering me as mayor,” Mayor Bill Shearon said. “People are sending me emails that I never get and, without email, this city dies.”

Shearon suggested city attorney Ricinda Perry write a letter asking Gatehouse to relinquish control over the city accounts.

However, Commissioner Janie Robertson was Shearon’s only supporter. Her motion died when it failed to gain a second, which prompted a stern message from the mayor.

“ I work seven days a week, trying to get day-to-day operations straightened out,” he said. “I will no longer be proactive. I will be reactive and the chips will fall where they fall.”

Shearon asked for a second motion and when he heard none, he swung the gavel, adjourned the meeting and left the dais in rage.

“It’s going to be a long year and a half around here because I don’t have any authority,” he said. “Instead, I get sued.”

At the April 29 session, Anderson proposed dumping the old method and transitioning to Microsoft 365, which works with Microsoft Office and allows users to access email and other features available with a cloud system.

The system also would automatically archive emails through a third party so they can be retrieved by search words. It would not rely on the city’s computer server for storage. The cities of Anna Maria and Holmes Beach use similar systems.

“You can go back and forth and handle your own email,” she said, “as you have been doing,
but if I get a request, I can’t get to it.”

The clerk is the official custodian of the city’s public records and, as such, responsible for responding to all public records requests.

Anderson said the city administrative server lacks the capacity to archive emails and the new IT system would cost the city about $4,700 a year.

Upon hearing of the clerk’s proposed new system, Gatehouse said he could address email and storage issues for less money.

He said he could add storage space to the server for about half the cost of the Microsoft program.

But Anderson said more storage would only be a temporary fix for all the problems plaguing the city.

Further, the city has purchased the system and staff is ready to install it.

Commissioner Jack Clarke had requested the matter be put on the April 29 work session agenda.

Clarke said after the meeting, “I am disinclined to be flexible on this issue.”

Clarke and Commissioner Ed Straight said they had concerns with the security of the system.

“I would liken the cloud to a big bowl of vegetable soup,” Clarke said. “That means if some outside source gets in and is looking for the macaroni, nobody else can get into the soup.”

Anderson, however, said the information stored on the cloud would be public record — legally accessible to everyone.

The IT system has been a concern for more than a year.

In November, commissioners voted to provide as much of their communication to city staff and officials by electronic means as possible. But those plans were put on hold after January, when the two senior staff members implementing the new policy, former city clerk Nora Idso and former deputy clerk Karen Cervetto, resigned.

Clarke said deputy clerks Tammy Johnson and Audra Lanzero “plotted their own course and ably navigated us through this time until the current city clerk and treasurer came on board.”

However, he said recent information shows that some emails may not have been handled in compliance with Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

Clarke said the violation is being remedied by new policies and procedures implemented by Anderson.

“Our IT has been exasperated by the city’s antiquated computer hardware and obsolete software,” Clarke said.

But he disagreed with Anderson’s purposed resolution, adding that the commission voted unbudgeted funds to address the problem by purchasing the Microsoft 365 software.

In addition, commissioners unanimously voted March 20 to renew the city’s agreement with Gatehouse.

Clarke said the implementation of the new program has caused larger problems.

“Some of us found that the simple functions we utilized earlier in the year were all of the sudden unavailable or working sporadically,” he said.

Clarke also said he could not find any evidence of the commission ever voting to fund the alternative plan.

Shearon disputed the lack of funding, saying the new system was included in the budget under information technology.

Shearon and Robertson said the decision to transition to the new system should be the clerk’s choice.

“We hired her to make these kind of decisions,” Shearon said. “We approved upgrading the computer system, and Jamie has stayed within the budget.”

Clarke criticized Anderson for not proposing the new system before commissioners renewed the agreement with Gatehouse, although he favored finishing the contract with Gatehouse through the fiscal year before transitioning to another program.

Shearon said Gatehouse would remain on the payroll, and focus his efforts on the website instead of city email.

“So what that means is we are stymied,” Shearon said. “That’s unacceptable. If you want to micromanage the city you need to be here every day and deal with all the issues staff faces.”

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