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Lakeland spent $160,000 on public records case

Published Nov. 23, 2014

LAKELAND — The city recently paid $95,000 to settle a lawsuit over how Lakeland police charged for public records.

And, when legal fees are included, the suit wound up costing the city at least $160,000.

The dispute started when Lakeland resident and open-records advocate Joel Chandler requested records and the department charged a flat rate of $23.50, rather than providing the public records free or basing charges on the specific work to be done.

Chandler sued in March 2010, saying such a charge for fulfilling simple records requests is improper.

In the settlement, agreed to last month and paid earlier this month, the city agreed to immediately end Lakeland Police Department's "flat fee" practice and to pay Chandler's lawyers for their work on the case.

The police department must also arrange for employees who handle public-record requests to attend training classes led by the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation.

In addition to the $95,000 Chandler's lawyers were paid, the city paid at least $55,000 to the GrayRobinson law firm to represent the city in negotiating the settlement, the agreement said.

Before filing the lawsuit, Chandler told city officials he wouldn't sue if the police department stopped charging the improper $23.50 flat fee, but the city refused.

"This was a classic example of an agency doubling down on stupid," Chandler said Thursday.

One city commissioner, Justin Troller, was blunt Thursday in his criticism of the way the matter was handled.

"If we were doing things right in the first place, we wouldn't need to settle anything," he said. "Someone needs to be held accountable, and I'm going to find out who it is."

Roger Mallory, an police department lawyer, worked on the lawsuit.

Chandler said GrayRobinson wasn't brought in until the final stages, and the law firm's job was to negotiate a settlement.

Chandler said Mallory was a big reason the legal fees were expensive, saying that Mallory "kept making really stupid arguments. And that got expensive. At every turn, they ran up the cost."

At one point, the city sued Chandler, claiming his lawsuit was frivolous.

Mallory said Thursday he wasn't the architect of the police department's or the city's position on the lawsuit.

Mallory said he told former police Chief Roger Boatner that while he considered the flat fee legal, it could be problematic and possibly invite lawsuits. He said he told Boatner's successor, Lisa Womack, the same thing.

But when the suit was filed, Mallory said, his job was to defend his clients, and they didn't want to settle.

"I did what lawyers do," he said. "I defended my client. I did what I was told."

Why not settle in the beginning, before the legal fees began to pile up?

"You should ask (city attorney) Tim McCausland that," Mallory said.

McCausland, who reports directly to the City Commission, could not be reached for comment.

McCausland reviewed the settlement with commissioners weeks ago.

Chandler said he wanted people to know he isn't getting a dime of the money, that it is all going to legal fees.

While taxpayers are footing that bill, he said, they'll also get the benefit of not paying the $23.50 fee that the police department required.

"A lot of times, it (fulfilling requests) should have been 15 cents," Chandler said.

He said the city has been charging the $23.50 for "years and years. The policy deliberately milked money out of the citizens."

Mallory said a consultant recommended the fee to LPD probably 10 or 15 years ago because the department was losing money providing public records.

"Nobody ever complained about it except Joel Chandler," Mallory said. Chandler is an advocate for public access to records and has been criticized as a nuisance by governments he has sued.

Commissioner Keith Merritt said he didn't know why the city took a "hard-nosed view" when it disputed the case.

"We could have gone along with the spirit of the public records act," he said.

But he said the city was "overly technical" when it responded to the request.

In addition, the city spent too much money, Merritt said. "We should have never found ourselves in a four-year litigation that found ourselves awarding $95,000," he said.

Mayor Howard Wiggs said he didn't think the city did anything wrong.

"It wasn't like we were intentionally doing anything untoward," he said.

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