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Zephyrhills man sues over cost of city's A to Z book

ZEPHYRHILLS — On page 146 is a picture of a 13-foot alligator, jaw splayed wide, its owner standing behind it wearing a derby hat and a spooky gaze.

A stern-looking Bessie and Jake Giles stare off of Page 84. The text says they and their five children were the first black family to live inside the city limits.

The "Z" chapter is especially long, a fact proudly noted in the preface of Zephyrhills A to Z.

The book is a not-at-all comprehensive history of a small town, compiled over a decade from microfilm and family histories and interviews and newspaper clippings. It tells of buildings that once anchored the town and later became parking lots. It tells of settlers who now lie in family cemeteries and their offspring who now drive city streets.

It's the story of Robert Chandler's hometown — the one he's now suing.

When Chandler, a 28-year-old business owner and former Marine, first learned of the book, he thought of his mother and knew she'd like to have one.

"She's been a longtime resident of Zephyrhills. I imagine there's a lot of people she knows that would be in there," he told the Times.

He e-mailed the city in February. Librarian Vicki Elkins, who edited the book, e-mailed him back the same day with the locations where it could be purchased, the addresses and hours of operation of those places and the price.

The price: $29.95, plus tax.

This did not seem right to Chandler.

He considers the book a public record, just like a memo or meeting minutes, and Florida law says most records our cities, counties, water authorities and the like produce are open for our perusal and available at a reasonable cost.

He filed his lawsuit against Zephyrhills this month, arguing the city (which published the book) is illegally selling the volume at a markup. Chandler says the retail price of the book should be no more than what it cost the city to produce it.

"The taxpayers have already paid for this book," Chandler said. "The book's just the format. They're profiting from the production of a public record and charging sales tax."

He calculated the city's cost at $23.74, using invoices and other financial records he obtained through a separate public records request.

City Manager Steve Spina said he doesn't know how Chandler came to that amount but acknowledged the printing cost was $17.89 per book. That didn't include staff time, which Florida's public records law authorizes governments to charge for.

Spina said he never thought of the book as a public record. He considered it more of a public service.

"I don't even mind lowering the price," which he said was suggested by the printer for a limited-edition hardcover. "We didn't do this as a money maker. We wanted to recoup our expenses and provide this service, really."

"It's just overwhelming," said Kathleen Burnside, who retired in 2009 as head of the city's library. The book was her idea, and it took most of a decade to come about. "It was such a positive thing, and for this to happen …"

Chandler waded into the public records fight — which is normally newspapers' and political campaign's territory — with a guide.

When he requested some records as part of running his online booking service for fishing charters, he was stymied and turned to his older brother for help.

Joel Chandler of Lakeland considers himself a public records activist and has filed numerous lawsuits against the state when he sees violations of Florida Statutes Chapter 119, the so-called Government-in-the-Sunshine law.

Earlier this year, Joel Chandler filed a federal lawsuit against the state Department of Transportation over its practice of obtaining personal information from drivers who paid tolls with large bills. He said the practice amounted to "illegally detaining" drivers — "something even police officers aren't allowed to do."

The state had instituted the practice to curb counterfeiting but suspended it after Chandler complained.

Joel Chandler also runs a website called FOGWatch.org, where he tracks and writes about open government issues.

"Thankfully I have my brother who's already been down this road," Robert Chandler said.

He hopes the suit will settle out of court, with the city acknowledging a wrongdoing, reimbursing people who paid the higher price and agreeing not to charge it anymore.

He realizes that "most people will say I'm just picking a fight." And it's not lost on him that the filing fee for the lawsuit ($400) plus what he pays his attorney far exceed the few dollars difference in price between what the city is charging and what he thinks it should charge.

Chandler could recover those costs — but no other monetary damages — if he prevails in the suit.

To him, it's the principle.

"The city is breaking the law," he said. "They obviously can't police themselves and hold themselves accountable, so somebody has to."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Zephyrhills man sues over cost of city's A to Z book 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 12:51pm]
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