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Date of Issue: March 30, 2005

Record request draws fire in Bradenton Beach

What started as a modest proposal for greater access to public records escalated to a contentious issue before finally resolving into a benign request in Bradenton Beach.

Vice Mayor Anna O'Brien started the brouhaha.

"We have no information regarding the building official and communication coming out of his office," she said. "It's not in the public record."

O'Brien suggested that Building Official Bob Welch's computer hard drive should be seized. "We need to take control of his hard drive and copy it before he can get to it and do something with it." She added that "it is obvious he has made it clear he has declared war."

She said she favored "denying the building official access to his computer until we can have copies made of his hard drive."

Commissioner Peter Barreda concurred, and went a step further.

"I move we have the police chief be in the building official's office first thing in the morning and deny the building official access to his computer until we can make copies of all the files and records," he said, "and ask if he has any files or records at home that need to be opened."

The motion died for lack of a second.

Commissioner Lisa Marie Phillips then stepped into the fray with a more moderate tone.

"Before we proceed in a Gestapo-like fashion," she said, "I would like us to ask the building official and city clerk to provide records. It is only polite, and I think we need to have some integrity and decorum and just ask first. Can we do this first?"

She added that a heavy-handed approach "may be misconstrued as harassment."

"I don't believe it would be misconstrued at all," Mayor John Chappie said.

"I absolutely, positively do not want to cast aspersions on the building official," O'Brien said in something of an about-face. "My mission is to preserve the integrity of the city's public records. I do not want this to be considered as punishment, but it is city business and taxpayer dollars."

"Sending the police chief in there would be intimidating," said Commissioner John Shaughnessy.

Newly retained interim attorney Chuck Webb suggested that the computer was city property and that city commissioners therefore had access to it. "it seems pretty heavy-handed to have the police chief come in the building official's office. I'm puzzled about your concerns."

Shaughnessy eventually made a motion to make a formal request to all department heads to make a backup of their hard drives, which passed with Chappie voting in the negative.

As a result, copies were made the next day.

"I'm glad to comply with the request of the commission for computer records," Welch said later. "This office has nothing to hide. We have never been instructed to put every piece of correspondence in a reading file, and we never had a policy to do so, but my policy now will be to give them everything."