Manatee County broke the law in animal shelter conditions case

Manatee County was found to have violated public records laws after a volunteer raised the alarm about living conditions at the county animal shelter.

The civil lawsuit, filed in November by Paul David Daniels, claims Manatee County withheld emails he requested without a valid legal citation in violation of Florida laws.

The violation came amid a years-long legal battle between Daniels and Manatee County.

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In that case, Daniels filed a lawsuit in Florida’s Intermediate District Court against the county after he was fired on June 16, 2020, from a volunteer position for posting negative information on Facebook about living conditions. at the county animal shelter, according to court records. .

Daniels became increasingly concerned about how animal services housed dogs outdoors with little to no ventilation, especially during the extreme Florida summer heat. The case came to a head in September 2019, when a dog who had been kept outside all summer fell ill and was found dead in his crate, court records show.

Daniels took to Facebook to express his concerns and was fired from his volunteer position in June 2020. Daniel’s claimed the firing was in retaliation and violated his First Amendment free speech rights, according to the court records.

The case was dismissed in February after the case was settled.

However, in November 2021, Daniels filed a civil lawsuit against Manatee County for breach of open records related to requests he made during the trial between August and September 2021, where he requested emails from various county officials associated with his trial.

Daniels – who represented himself in the civil case – received thousands of pages of documents in response, but he was able to prove that some recordings had not been released by providing screenshots of emails between employees of the county that should have been included in response to its public request for records, the records show.

Seven months later, the county then produced 40 emails that should have been provided at the time of Daniels’ request, records show.

Records Manager Deborah Scaccianoce said the failure resulted from a change in county procedures for public records requests for public emails, according to court records.

Scaccianoce was previously allowed to search the county’s system for emails herself until “somewhat suddenly, in the fall of 2021, this task was outsourced to the county’s IT department,” according to the records. judicial.

The IT department found the 40 emails in an archive folder after she asked them to search for records again, according to the records.

The court ruled in favor of Daniels and found the county failed to respond to his request for public records and the delay was not reasonable or justified.

“It was not a close call,” 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Edward Nicholas wrote in the April 11 court records.

“By the way, Ms. Scaccianoce is experienced and well-accredited and, in the opinion of this court, probably would not have missed the emails that the IT failed to locate,” he said. he also wrote.

Daniels, who requested reimbursement of his filing and service fees, was awarded $711 for the case on May 9, with the court saying the case would be dismissed after payment.

The commissioners wonder

At a special meeting on Tuesday, Manatee County commissioners questioned Department of Information Technology Services Chief Drew Richardson and County Administrator Scott Hopes on details surrounding the case. .

County Attorney Bill Clague has indicated his willingness to appeal the decision.

A file photo of Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes from March 2022.

Richardson told commissioners that the IT department took over email searches in October 2021. He said that by removing responsibility for the records department, the county now had inventory control and could track requests of public documents from beginning to end.

Hopes – who was hired as county administrator in April 2021 – said the changes were made to ensure records are kept and every request for public recording is recorded.

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“There was a period where records were searched, email records, other records on the system, where there didn’t seem to be consistency with how records and search histories were kept “, said Hopes. “Some search histories were kept, some weren’t. They were deleted. So you couldn’t easily tell what was searched for, who it was produced for, what happened to those electronic copies.”

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Jennifer R. Strohm