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COLLIER COUNTY — Editor's note: An earlier version of this story indicated that EDC Chairman-elect Tim Cartwright removed data from the EDC's computers and was in possession of that information. That is incorrect. The information was removed, backed-up and is being stored at a third-party management site.
The fate of the Economic Development Council’s financial records are in dispute, with some Collier County commissioners saying they are unsure the county is in possession of everything it is owed from the now-defunct organization.
But the EDC’s chairman-elect said the organization has been more than cooperative, turning over everything the county has asked.
The county is in possession of the EDC’s computer equipment, but the data on the computers’ hard drives was removed, according to an email sent to Commissioner Georgia Hiller from County Manager Leo Ochs.
This prompted Hiller to bring up the issue at Tuesday’s commission meeting. “We need to get everything,” she said. “We need to be complete.”
Tim Cartwright, the EDC’s chairman-elect, said the re¬cords were removed from the computers and are being stored offsite at a third-party records management firm. Cartwright said the information isn’t gone and what the county has is complete.
“We have backed up all of our files and wiped all the computers clean, whether they were recycled ... or returned computers,” he said. “We returned them in the condition that they were loaned to us. It is standard protocol.”
The commissioners voted unanimously to ask the Economic Development Council to turn over its financial records to County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow, so the records can be reviewed by county staff and Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock’s office.
The council — a public-private partnership — was receiving $400,000 of taxpayer money a year to support its operations. The money was given to the EDC in bi-monthly installments.
The EDC dissolved at the end of last month. The decision came as a consultant released a strategic plan, which recommended replacing the EDC with an entirely new, reinvigorated organization, supported entirely by private businesses. The new group would focus on keeping and growing jobs.
Klatzkow informed commissioners that the county is in possession of financial documents submitted by the EDC for audit each year the county gave the EDC funds. The county also is in possession, on its own servers, of all emails about the EDC sent to and from county employees to the EDC, he said.
“It is the EDC’s position that any other documents are outside our purview,” Klatzkow said.
But Commissioner Tom Henning doesn’t think that is true. He said he would like all of the EDC’s canceled checks and bank statements turned over to the county.
“All of the financials,” he said, adding after the meeting that Klatzkow needs to take whatever venue necessary, including, but not limited to, civil action.
Cartwright said the EDC has turned over everything the county has requested, including financial records. In addition, he said the EDC has returned all the equipment loaned to it by the county and donated some office equipment and furniture to the county.
“We’ve been very cooperative,” he said. “Every year that the EDC takes public funds, we have to give an accounting as to how the $400,000 was spent. Every month, we would send an invoice to the county with back-up. At the end of the year, we would do an audit of the public funds to make sure what we sent to the county was correct. We also sent the county the private audit of the EDC’s financials, which was above and beyond their request to make sure we were operating in good faith.”
But, when it comes to confidential information, Cartwright said that will remain private. He said economic development records, including companies’ requests to relocate or those requests for confidentiality, are protected by an exemption to the public records law.
Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine manual states that “information held by an economic development agency concerning the plans or interests of such a private entity to locate, relocate or expand its business activities in Florida is confidential and exempt from disclosure for 12 months after the agency receives a request for confidentiality or the information is otherwise disclosed, whichever occurs first.”
The Sunshine manual goes on to say that “proprietary confidential business information is confidential and exempt until such information is otherwise publicly available or is no longer treated by the proprietor as confidential business information.”
But Hiller said that might not be the case. She said the EDC acted as agents for the county in several situations, including fast-tracking industries to bring certain companies to Collier County and would, therefore, not be exempt from the public records law.
“I would like to see what we’ve got so far,” she said. “I am not sure we have received all we are entitled to.”
In other EDC news, Ochs was given direction by a majority of commissioners to move forward with a job description for a new county economic development director. Currently, the county’s growth management division has been overseeing economic development for the county following the EDC’s closure.
Commissioner Jim Coletta said the county needed to keep moving forward.
“We can handle the small economic incentives, but the rest on the county end is lacking,” he said, adding he would like to see an advisory board convened to help move the county forward.
But Commission Chairman Fred Coyle said the county should not move too quickly.
“We need to be careful not to get too far out in front of the effort,” he said. “We need to move forward in lock step with the private sector.”
Connect with Collier County government and transportation reporter Katherine Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katherine-albers