Tampa, Florida -- Joel Chandler, who spends his free time going into government buildings to file public records requests, is often rebuffed by government agencies.
Chandler, a public records advocate, says he believes public officials forget who they work for. He says the officials work for the public and the powers they have are powers people have granted to them.
The Polk School Board was the first agency Chandler asked for public records on. He asked for an insurance policy which was on-line. He says despite the fact the information was on-line the district violated the law. He says he was asked for personal information, they wanted to know why he wanted the records, and they asked for the request in writing all of which is not required by state law.
Chandler got those records, but when he asked for more specific insurance information the district refused and Chandler sued. He says when they got to court and the judge asked the district what its defense was, their attorney said essentially they didn't have one. According to Chandler the district acknowledged it knew he was entitled to the records, but didn't want to give the records to him.
The attorney for the school board, Wes Bridges, says while the board couldn't find a specific exemption in the law, it didn't believe the legislature wanted it to release the information Chandler requested. That was a costly mistake. The Polk School board has to pay $44,000 in legal fees in that case. Bridges says it was worth the money because it was protecting records it didn't think should be public.
Chandler's attorney, Gregg Thomas, is one of the foremost first amendment attorneys in the country. He says when a government agency violates the law and a citizen sues, the governmental agency has to pay attorney fees.
Every time Thomas wins a public records case for Chandler taxpayers have to pay his fees in addition to the fees they have paid the lawyer representing the government. Thomas says it is amazing that government doesn't want to follow the law.
In addition to going after governments that refuse to give up public records, Chandler is also going after governments that charge excessive fees to discourage citizens from getting documents that rightfully belong to them.
For example, Chandler made a request to the Lakeland Police Department for a one page document that should have cost $.15. However he was charged more than $23 for crime analysis by the department even though he didn't ask for crime analysis. Now he is suing the department, which he says could cost the public big bucks.
Chandler says he has tried to reason with the department. He says he has had conversations with the Chief and the department attorney, but they have decided they are just going to litigate.
What's that costing you? More than $100,000 in the cases Chandler has won against several governmental agencies. Estimates another $100,000 the Lakeland case and the city of Venice had to pay more than $700,000 in legal fees for a sunshine law violation in the past two years. That amounts to almost a million dollars in attorney fees paid out because governmental agencies won't comply with the law.
Chandler says there is no apparent reason the governments won't turn over documents except for the fact they don't want to comply. And when it comes to the fines, he says the bureaucrats don't care because it is OPM, other people's money, which comes from the taxpayers.
And the taxpayers, who have a constitutional right to see public records, are either shut out or have to force governmental agencies to spend thousands and thousands of public dollars to try to keep information from the public that is rightfully theirs.