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Settling dispute over book will cost Zephyrhills more than $4,000

ZEPHYRHILLS — City library director Vicki Elkins never imagined that the hardcover book about Zephyrhills history she helped compile would end up controversial.

It was supposed to be a gift to the community, preserving its history in 285 pages that took nearly a decade to compile.

"We wanted something that was a value to the citizens of Zephyrhills,'' Elkins said. "It was a very localized source of information on families and some of the buildings in Zephyrhills."

Then in April, more than two years after Zephyrhills From A to Z's release in December 2008, a resident sued the city not about its content, but about its price tag of $29.95, plus tax.

Robert Chandler wanted to buy a copy for his mother, a longtime Zephyrhills resident, but was astounded by its cost. So astounded, he hired a lawyer and paid $400 in filing fees to the Pasco Clerk of Court to sue his hometown, saying it was overcharging taxpayers for a public record that should be available for a reasonable price.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Elkins removed signs advertising the sale of the book at the library and the city's historic Depot Museum.

"I was just very surprised," Elkins recalled Tuesday. "It just shocked me."

But the legal wrangling about the historical record might soon be over.

During Monday night's regular City Council meeting, city attorney Joe Poblick announced that a settlement agreement has been reached with Chandler's attorney, James Valenti of Lakeland.

Under the agreement, the city will lower the cost of the book to its production cost of $17.89, not charge tax and pay Chandler's $4,052.50 in attorney fees. Chandler would not make a dime in the agreement.

"I'm not 100 percent convinced it was a public record," Poblick told the council.

Still, he told them, he was recommending the council approve the settlement offer solely from a business standpoint. If the city were to fight the cause in court, it would likely cost substantially more whether or not it prevailed, he said.

Council members expressed their frustration with the case and the fact that a man trying to save taxpayers money was costing them thousands.

Council member Charlie Proctor asked Poblick to publicly announce Chandler's name.

"I just think everyone should know," Proctor said.

"I begrudgingly make the motion that we accept the attorney's recommendation," council member Lance Smith said before the unanimous vote.

The settlement won't be final until Chandler and a Circuit judge sign off on it.

Chandler, 29, said Tuesday that as long as the noted attorney fees are correct, he'll sign the document.

Before the lawsuit, Elkins said, she hadn't heard a bad word about the publication. To date, 184 of the 700 copies printed have been sold.

"Everybody loved it," she said.

The original selling price came at the suggestion of the book's publisher, Poblick said. And by all city accounts it was never meant to turn a profit. Elkins said the extra money was put in a reserve fund in case a second printing was warranted.

"It was never considered a money-making enterprise," she said.

Chandler says he's not to blame for costing taxpayers money. The city was selling the book illegally and bilking residents out of their hard-earned cash, he said, and the practice needed to be stopped.

"Now, the city is on the hook for attorney's fees," he said. "They could have settled this months ago for far less than $4,000. They have been dragging their feet."

Poblick said that's not the case. He's been researching the case and working with Chandler's attorney since the suit was filed. He has found case law supporting and disproving that the community history book is a public record.

"The book was created by city employees, on city time at the taxpayer expense," said Chandler, a business owner and former Marine. "How is that not a public record?"

Chandler decided to take on the public record fight, following in his brother Joel's footsteps.

Joel Chandler of Lakeland spends much of his time fighting local governments around the state for what he considers public record violations. He runs FOGWatch.org, an online magazine that tracks Florida's open government issues, that is supported, in part, by PayPal donations.

Robert Chandler has joined forces with his brother, he said, and has filed a few other lawsuits related to public record "violations" since the one in Zephyrhills.

He doesn't yet count the Zephyrhills case as a victory, he said, but it makes a statement.

"One person standing up can make a difference," he said.

Chandler said he will probably buy a copy of Zephyrhills From A to Z for his mother at the new cost.

Poblick counts the case as frivolous and says it's something that could have been resolved if Chandler had first picked up the phone and called him or then City Manager Steve Spina, before calling his attorney.

"It's silly," Poblick said. "It's a waste of government resources."

Settling dispute over book will cost Zephyrhills more than $4,000 06/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 8:27pm]
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