Public records advocate paves controversial path

By: David Fleshler

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — At the Sarasota office of Boro Building and Property Maintenance, a polite but persistent man with a video camera asks to see the company’s contract to provide janitorial services to a state agency.

“You can’t come here asking me for a contract,” says the man at the front desk. “I need to see some ID from you. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Florida,” said the man with the camera, Joel Chandler. The exchange continues like this for a while and ends with a company employee tossing away Chandler’s business card.

The lawsuit Chandler later filed against Boro Building and Property Maintenance was one of more than 200 the Lakeland resident has filed in the past seven years over alleged public records law violations by companies and government agencies. Chandler, 51, a former copy machine salesman with no legal training, has made it his mission to enforce Florida’s public records law, providing free public records training to anyone who wants it and paying unannounced visits to public and private custodians of public records to assess their compliance with the law.

“It was quite a disruption,” said Ryan Skrzypkowski, president of Boro Building and Property Maintenance. “He burst through the door with a series of cameras strapped to his body.”

Chandler’s efforts have also helped generate a backlash in the state Legislature, which is considering tightening the public records law to eliminate what some legislators see as “gotcha” cases in which activists deliberately provoke violations of the law to generate legal fees for the law firms with which they are affiliated.

Under a 2013 amendment to Florida’s open-records law, private contractors with the state must produce certain documents on request, if their contract requires it. But Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has introduced a bill to require requests be made to state agencies only, saying “the rights of private business owners are being trampled by some unscrupulous people bent on getting rich off a new scam.”

Chandler records these encounters on video, where he affects an amiable, Michael Moore-style persona, listening as desk clerks and supervisors commit error upon error on the requirements of the public records law. At the Broward Sheriff’s Office, where he asked to see the roster of deputies on duty the previous day, he was told to “provide a written request.” At the Florida City police department, where he asked to see the visitor’s log, he was told to have his request notarized and sent by certified mail.

“His impact has been both good and bad,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based group that works on press freedom and open government issues. “Sometimes I don’t agree with his methods, but I think that the role of watchdog is an important role in any society.”

His requests can be so intrusive that they generate a backlash that ultimately diminishes access to public records, she said. When he requested names and ages of children covered by the health benefits for teachers in the Polk County School District, the district refused.

“He sued and he won, and then there was an immediate backlash,” she said. “A huge backlash from the Legislature, and they passed a public records exemption for that information.”

As Chandler sees it, scrupulous adherence to the public records law is not simply a nice, clean-government issue. For people charged with crimes, it could mean the difference between prison and freedom. For children in the state’s juvenile justice system, it can be the only way for outsiders to see that they’re cared for properly. He invoked the horrors of the Dozier School for Boys, a notorious state-run reform school in the Panhandle that closed in 2011, where investigators have documented extensive abuse and dug up secret graves.

“The quintessential example of why public records access matters, why transparency matters is Dozier, where they’re digging up all these bodies,” he said. “If that’s what happens at the hands of the state, imagine what potentially could happen at the hands of private contractors.”

Pursuing his public records obsession, he has neglected the business of earning a living, at some cost to a family that includes two children in high school. He filed for bankruptcy last year.

“I scrape by,” he said. “I’ve sold most of my personal possessions. When I first started doing this I went through cash, and then I cashed in my children’s college savings. I guess that tells you what my priorities are. I sold my boats, and I had a collection of Taylor guitars and I sold those.”

Chandler makes no money from his lawsuits because a person can’t collect damages in public records cases, just attorneys’ fees.

Last year, Chandler embarked on the most controversial stage of his career, becoming executive director of the Citizens Awareness Foundation, a Deerfield Beach organization that agreed to pay him $120,000 to assess compliance. But he quit after several months, saying the foundation appeared to be nothing but an entity to generate lawsuits and legal fees for an affiliated law firm. The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting did an extensive report on the center, which led to the legislation now pending in Tallahassee that could make it more difficult to obtain public records involving contractors.

“I really believe in transparency, and I would be heartbroken if I had been responsible for eroding the right to know in Florida,” Chandler said. “I think I bear some responsibility to the extent that I was probably terribly naive when I was approached by Citizen’s Awareness Foundation.”

When Clayton Cowart, a Winter Haven minister and head of the Poor and Minority Justice Association, suspected that undercover law enforcement officers were attending his group’s meetings, he filed a public records request with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. He was quoted a processing fee of more than $16,000.

He contacted Chandler, who made the same request and obtained – at no cost – emails proving the Polk County Sheriff’s Office had infiltrated the group’s meetings. The office later said it had information the group planned a disruptive demonstration at the county jail.

“He has used his knowledge to empower minorities and empower those who otherwise would not know what information was accessible to them under the Sunshine Law,” Cowart said. “He doesn’t do it for any financial benefit because the people here can’t pay him. He does it because it’s his passion.”