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Public records watchdog sues several Tampa Bay agencies

TAMPA — Joel Chandler is obsessed with public records.

He used to have a job and a sailboat. But he sold most of his possessions to bankroll a different full-time pursuit: ensuring Florida agencies follow public records laws.

Chandler, 48, estimates that over the past five years, he has sued more than 100 government agencies and state contractors that have denied his records requests.

Since November, he and his brother, Robert Chandler, have filed 41 new lawsuits.

Their latest targets include the sheriffs of Hillsborough and Pasco counties and the city of St. Petersburg.

Here's how they do it:

One of the Chandlers walks into a government building, such as a sheriff's office substation. He points to a visible document, often the visitor's log.

Can I look at that? he asks.

Joel Chandler says about a third of the employees hand over the records. The rest do not.

Sometimes, the employee asks for Chandler's name, identification or a written request. Sometimes, the worker says he needs permission. Not true, Chandler says.

Florida Statute 119: It is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records are open for personal inspection and copying by any person. Providing access to public records is a duty of each agency.

When the Chandlers don't get the records, they sue.

Not to get rich, Joel Chandler says. He has been accused of filing lawsuits for the money, but he wins only attorney fees.

But he does usually win.

The Lakeland man guesses his lawsuits have cost government agencies and contractors more than $1 million.

"It's a terrible waste — a horrible waste — of taxpayer money," he said.

But it's the agencies' fault, not his, he said.

"The only reason this money is being spent is because public officials are breaking the law," Chandler said. "And filing a lawsuit is the only option you've got — there's no other way to tattle."

In the past, agencies have accused him of "gotcha" litigation, but many eventually settle.

Chandler documents his efforts on his blog, FOGWatch, where he has posted videos of some of his visits to government agencies.

Last week, he traveled to Tallahassee to talk to state senators about open government issues. He spoke before the Florida Senate Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability regarding Transparency 2.0, a $5 million budget transparency program that was never made available to the public.

He also met Florida Senate President Don Gaetz.

The pair discussed open records and several of Chandler's concerns. Gaetz told the Tampa Bay Times that he was interested to hear from Chandler that government agencies have not been holding contractors accountable when it comes to public records laws.

If contractors do not comply with public records requests, the government agency the company is working under can cancel the contract.

According to Chandler, the agencies don't.

"Joel Chandler is the burr under the saddle of insensitive government," Gaetz said. "And a burr under the saddle is uncomfortable. But he is a necessary nudge to insensitive government agencies and contractors, and I think he performs a public service."

Chandler plans to continue "auditing" government agencies and is currently trying to establish a nonprofit that he can operate under. "There are times where it feels overwhelming — like I'm fighting a fight I'm never going to win," Chandler said. "Sometimes, I feel that way. But I go to sleep, and the next morning I feel better."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Public records watchdog sues several Tampa Bay agencies 01/21/13 [Last modified: Monday, January 21, 2013 9:28pm]

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