Tech glitch results in ‘data gap’
March 17, 2017


A changeover in the city of Cape Coral's call reporting system has left a five-week gap in data archiving, leaving the municipality unable to access any local landline phone logs from mid September to late October of last year.

The city first discovered a more than five-month gap in producible records late last year after a public records request was made for an employee's phone log from June 1 to Dec. 13, 2016.

The city was ultimately able to retrieve most of the records requested but still incurred a gap from Sept. 17 to Oct. 25, according to a Dec. 28 memo from City Manager John Szerlag, copied to Cape Coral City Council members and the family making the records request.

By using billing data provided by the city's telecom carrier CenturyLink, the city has since been able to access the long distance calls records requested as well as local calls made Oct. 19-24.

The city still cannot, however, retrieve information for any local calls for the rest of the time period.

That means the city can not produce those public records if requested and so has meanwhile referred at least one resident to CenturyLink - which won't try to compile the missing data without a subpoena.

"... Unfortunately, we have discovered that our telephone system had not transferred call record data to our old call accounting system since September 16, 2016, so we could not export the data from our old accounting system into our new one as we planned," Szerlag said in a Feb. 14 followup memo that outlines the problem and remedies taken by city staff.

"Therefore our final gaps in retrieving data is for local calls only from September 17, 2016 to early afternoon on October 19, 2016, and from mid-morning October 24, 2016 through October 25, 2016....." the memo states.

The gap pertains to all city landline calls and is not specific to the records of the employee whose phone log was sought, Szerlag said.

The memo also explains that, because local call records "are not maintained in the normal course of business" and so require "an extensive search of raw data," CenturyLink requires a subpoena or court order before it will attempt to provide the missing call logs.

For the Cape Coral family that made its records request back in December in the wake of city plans to take, by eminent domain, a five-acre parcel family members own in the north Cape, that answer is unsatisfactory.

Also unsatisfactory is the city's notice that it has now closed the public records request with nearly five weeks of phone calls made or received by the city's property broker missing, said Wendy Blake, the sister of Ginny Bunch, who, with her husband Jeff, own the parcel off Commercial Park.

"I believe it was inappropriate for them to close a public records request knowing the records were not provided to the requestor," Blake said in a telephone interview this week.

"It should be the city's responsibility to provide me with the records. If it takes a subpoena, so be it," she added.

She estimates the Bunch family has already paid the city approximately $1,000 in fees for public records related to the pending eminent domain action.

City staff was aware it was having difficulties with its "antiquated" call reporting system earlier last year and so decided to replace it. Replacement was completed on Oct. 25 and both systems then ran parallel to ensure the new system was operating properly before the old was disengaged, Szerlag's Dec. 20 memo states.

When staff received the records request for employee Dawn Andrew's call log, attempts to retrieve the records on the old system failed. A search on the new system produced records for Oct. 25 through Dec. 13. Another effort was made on the old system and the city thought is was successful. However, the records from Sept. 17 through most of Dec. 16 were missing and those from Sept. 17-Oct. 25 ultimately could not be retrieved despite repeat efforts.

According to city emails between the city and the Bunch family exchanged in mid December, the old call accounting system failed in September and so the city lacked access to call records prior to the new system being installed on Oct. 25.

Those email exchanges also state that all records prior to Oct. 25 could not be retrieved, not only those requested by the Bunch family.

Blake said Council, and the public, should have been promptly notified of the problem.

"I believe that John Szerlag should have notified the mayor and the Council immediately that all of the phone records were missing prior to Oct. 25," she said. "And it was an exhaustive process to reconstruct most of the records and the Council and the mayor should have known that."

She also takes issue with the city twice marking the family's records request as "complete" - once in December with five months of calls not provided; the second time in February with the still-existing gap.

"I believe the city of Cape Coral has no honest intention of being transparent," Blake said, adding it was the family that had to point out in December that the city had not produced all the records requested.

City Councilmember John Carioscia said while not a technical expert, he has no reason to believe that staff was dissembling or had not done all that could be done to retrieve records made inaccessible due to a technology-related problem it identified and disclosed.

The city has provided requested records in the past, even those that may not have held the city up in the best light, he said, adding that he has no reason to believe staff would attempt to provide an inaccurate explanation of what had transpired and how this time.

"I know they have turned things over in the past that have not made the city look great. I can't get my head around that they would hide anything," Carioscia said in a telephone interview. "I don't know of an instance in five years that I've been there that they are lying to us or deceiving us."

If that were ever the case, it would be immediately addressed, he added.

The city administration declined additional comment, referring to the explanatory memos.


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