Dispute between city clerk and commissioners leads to call for more research into leasing options for storage of public records

Board members debate condition of current facility, digitization of records and a deal with Benderson Development

City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini. File photo
City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini. File photo

With two Sarasota city commissioners having voiced anger over the matter having been placed on the Consent Agenda, City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini and Purchasing Department staff will be investigating more options for temporary public records storage than a lease with Benderson Development.

That was the unanimous decision of the City Commission during its Sept. 19 meeting after almost 35 minutes of discussion.

Commissioner Susan Chapman had pulled the lease matter from the Consent Agenda, which typically includes routine business items. The item called for the board to “Authorize the Purchasing Division to proceed with negotiations with Benderson Development concerning leasing a property located at 7115-7456 16th Street East, Sarasota-Bradenton Commerce Center, for the City Auditor and Clerk’s Central Records Division.”

The facility is just north of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

“When I read this,” Chapman told her colleagues, “I was surprised,” given the importance of the issue.

The board members discussed records storage during a June budget workshop, Chapman pointed out, but her understanding was that any decision about moving materials to another place would be made after city staff had completed a study of departments’ space utilization.

The city's Public Works facility is located at 1751 12th St. in Sarasota. Image from Google Maps
The city’s Public Works facility is located at 1751 12th St. in Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

Mitt Tidwell, the city’s facilities director, included $106,000 in his budget request for the 2017 fiscal year for that study of City Hall, its annex, the federal building, the Public Works Department complex on the north side of 12th Street — with the inclusion of the Central Records and Utilities Billing buildings — the Blue Pagoda structure (most recently, the downtown headquarters of U.S. Masters Swimming) and the former G.WIZ building on the bayfront.

When Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked about problems that had been reported in regard to the Central Records facility, Tidwell replied that staff maintains the building almost on a daily basis and that leaks have been patched. The facility is old, he explained, noting that Tropical Storm Colin in early June produced even more leaks.

The backup material for the Sept. 19 Consent Agenda item provided by Nadalini’s office noted, “To-date, the records center has undergone roof repairs, ceiling tile replacement, mold remediation, window sealing, and installation of new carpet.” The document called the facility “an unsuitable environment for hosting staff and storing the City’s official records …”

Debate over cost and hard copies

“There is in adequate information to tell us the actual cost of this,” Chapman pointed out to her colleagues during the Sept. 19 meeting.

The backup agenda material said Benderson Development would rent the 8,750-square-foot space for three years for $13 per square foot per year — with 3% annual increases, plus applicable sales tax — if it were to demolish all but 1,600 square feet of the existing office space to provide more warehousing room; lay new carpet; repaint the remaining office space; and install a new heating and air conditioning system in the warehouse area. A follow-up email said the city could have the space as is for three years for $5.50 per square foot per year, or $48,125 per year.

Backup agenda material shows this information about the Benderson facility north of the airport. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
Backup agenda material shows this information about the Benderson facility north of the airport. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“It’s a high price,” Chapman said. “And why wouldn’t we be using a Sarasota business instead of Benderson in Manatee County, especially given our history with Benderson and the city and how Benderson has stolen businesses from the city, Southgate Mall, for example.”

Several retailers left Southgate Mall when they signed leases for the Mall at University Town Center, a Benderson project near University Parkway. Additionally, in 2015, the previous City Commission ended up pulling out of an agreement with Benderson for the company to develop a commercial project on 11 city-owned acres at the northeast corner of Beneva Road and Fruitville Road.

Chapman then said she felt a decision on leasing records storage space should be deferred until after the space utilization study was completed. “And I wonder if we need to hire somebody to consult with the Clerk’s Office to determine what records have to be maintained in hard copy,” she continued.

City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell. File photo
City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell. File photo

“I agree,” Commissioner Suzanne Atwell responded, noting, “I’m concerned with an added thing: the emergency situation of this. … I am not — and we as commissioners should not be — self-appointed experts on the degrading of a building.”

Freeland Eddie told her colleagues, “I would think that the City Auditor’s Office has a handle as to [statutory requirements] for records storage,” as Nadalini participates in continuing education programs.

She would like more information about the cost and the timing of the lease proposed for records storage, Freeland Eddie said. “But I did not understand us to say [in June] that we were going to set aside between $100,000 and $150,000 for lease options only to wait until the study was over. The point was that there were problems with the [Central Records] building; our employees were at stake.”

Mayor Willie Shaw added of that June discussion, “We understood the urgency of the need for the protection of the files and records,” which has a bearing on the timing of a lease decision.

Then Commissioner Liz Alpert said, “It was my understanding — and I certainly could be wrong here — that we were going to look at leasing opportunities” while the space study was underway, but also explore digitization possibilities. “I just find it hard to believe that, in this day and age, everything has to be kept in hard copy.”

When Atwell asked how long the city has been storing materials in the old metal building, Nadalini told her, “Thirty-plus years, and we’ve been having this problem [with leaks] the last 10 to 15 years, for sure.”

“What is the seriousness of this [situation]?” Atwell then asked. “I can’t go there and say [the building] looks old and ugly and smelly. That’s meaningless. I’m a commissioner; I’m not an expert on assessing the damage.”

“We’re required by law to safeguard our records,” Nadalini replied. In terms of digitizing materials, she said of her office staff members, “We’ve always maintained our records electronically.” However, some city departments do not do as good a job of that, she pointed out. In the future, she continued, it might be necessary either for the City Commission to mandate the use of electronic records or for City Manager Tom Barwin to issue an internal mandate to that effect.

Commissioner Susan Chapman. File photo
City Commissioner Susan Chapman. File photo

Barwin told the board that staff has hired a consultant to assist with digitizing “the massive amount of utility records,” and he would arrange for Nadalini to talk with representatives of that firm.

If not all departments are using electronic record-keeping systems, Alpert said, they should be required to do so.

“We’re government,” Nadalini then pointed out, “so we’re not going to be able to get rid of every single piece of paper.”

Chapman noted, as she had in late June, that Yarnall Moving and Storage Solutions, which recently was acquired by Access Retrievex, keeps hard copies of records “for a very reasonable price.” She had received an email that morning from the firm, she added, offering temporary assistance to the city.

How to proceed?

Nadalini asked the commissioners to allow the Purchasing Department to continue negotiating with Benderson staff about the lease options for the facility near the airport. They would have to approve any lease, she explained, so they would have all the necessary details to review in advance of such a vote. “We’re not going to leave here today and just start negotiating a move into the [Benderson] building next week.”

Nick Dazio, the city’s records manager, told the board he understood that staff had reviewed a number of structures as potential, temporary repositories of the records. The Benderson property is hurricane-hardened, he pointed out, whereas the current facility is not.

(From left) Rob Schanley and Nick Dazio participate in the discussion. News Leader photo
(From left) Rob Schanley and Nick Dazio participate in the discussion. News Leader photo

When Shaw then asked whether staff could have discussed the leasing matter internally before bringing it to the board that day, Nadalini replied, “We did discuss this internally. We work directly with Purchasing.” Robert Schanley, the city’s real estate and asset manager, had told her that her office should prepare the request for the Sept. 19 agenda, because the second reading of the FY17 budget was on the same agenda.

Schanley then explained that staff had looked at five potential sites for the relocation of the records, three of which are in Sarasota County. However, one of the latter and one in Manatee County already have been leased. Nadalini felt that of the remaining three, the one on the Sept. 19 agenda was the best option, he added.

When Chapman questioned whether he had contacted Access, he told her, “I wasn’t asked to do that; I was asked to look for property.”

Is it true that Access has additional storage capacity, Freeland Eddie asked.

Nadalini told the commissioners she was not aware of the email from Access that Chapmen had mentioned earlier.

“We’ve been here 45 minutes on two items,” Shaw interjected at that point. (The first item — also on the Consent Agenda — involved agenda review and scheduling of specific types of items.)

Then Chapman made a motion to deny authorization for the lease with Benderson as presented, have staff continue leasing negotiations and have Nadalini investigate the use of Access’ storage space. Referencing the space utilization study again, Chapman said, “The last time I saw an analysis of the Records Center, it said that the issues [with the building] were not as serious as previously stated.”

Chapman added, “When [then-Tropical Storm] Hermine came through, everybody I know had roofs leak at their houses; this is not a unique issue when there are record rains.”

Freeland Eddie objected to the motion, saying she felt staff should have the flexibility to explore options other than Access. “Now I don’t want them to come back and say, ‘We did what you told us to do and it didn’t work out, so we’re going to start all over again.’”

Alpert concurred with Freeland Eddie.

Freeland Eddie then suggested the motion be to defer action on the Benderson lease and direct the staff members of the City Auditor and Clerk’s Office and the Purchasing Department to come back with more proposals, including one involving Access. She indicated they should seek options in the city, too, if at all possible.

Chapman agreed to amend the motion, as did Atwell, who had seconded it. “We shouldn’t be negotiating up here,” Atwell pointed out. “It’s ridiculous.”