By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
It was Sunshine Week 2007. A week when the rules of open government are tested.
Joel Chandler is an interactive sort of person. So when the copy machine salesman from Lakeland first heard about the event he calls “public records week,” he decided to participate.
Chandler filed a number of public records requests. All the agencies complied fully — except for the Polk County Public School District.
Chandler had asked for all non-exempt information on everyone covered under any health insurance plans provided by the Polk County School Board. That didn’t just give Chandler entry into all district employees, but their families as well. It was not a popular request.
The district instead gave Chandler a detailed form to fill out that asked for information about Chandler and what he intended to do with the information.
Rather than giving up the information, Chandler contacted the First Amendment Foundation. He ended up suing the school board for violating the state’s open records law.
The decision reverberated.
Legislators filed bills. Officials accused him of getting the information to sell for marketing purposes (Chandler says he’s never done that and never will). People made threats. The School Board’s lawyer was charged with a public record violation.
Chandler kept filing public records requests, and started a website called FOGWatch – Florida Open Government Watch.
Chandler, 47, had found his cause. And it wasn’t selling copy machines. He devoted himself to defending the public trust and our right to know. He had become a crusader.
A public records angel.
“I’m not saying I’m an angel,” Chandler chuckles at the title. “But I’ve been called a lot of other names.”
Chandler likens public records law to the First Amendment: It’s not just meant to protect popular free speech. The real test of the law is whether it protects unpopular speech. And so it is with public records.
And Chandler definitely made some unpopular requests. He asked every school district in Florida for the same records he had requested in Polk County. He requested files from every police and sheriff’s department. From medical examiners.
And he got the information, although not always so willingly.
“I’ve probably sued 25-26 different agencies,” he says.
And now it’s the Florida Department of Transportation, and the folks who run the turnpike system.
In July 2010, Chandler was heading to Fort Lauderdale to take part in a fishing tournament. Before leaving, Chandler pulled out $800 from the bank. Eight $100 bills.
When he rolled up to the Cash/Change toll both on the turnpike and handed over a $100 bill for a $1 toll — he doesn’t use SunPass, the digital windshield transponder — the toll taker gave him a “Bill Detection Report,” which requires him to give information about his car and himself.
When Chandler balked, he was told that the gate wouldn’t rise until he had filled out the form — or produced a smaller bill.
Chandler, ever the crusader, finally gave in. But his interest was piqued. And it’s never good for some agency or bureaucrat when Chandler’s interest is piqued.
Chandler called FDOT that night and made a complaint. He continued to call the next day. And the following day, he began sending e-mails.
Initially, he was told that FDOT was not familiar with the practice of using bill detection reports.
Later, after Chandler made a public records request for all relevant e-mails, he found out that he was the focus of e-mail traffic at the highest levels of turnpike administration. The practice of collecting the reports was even suspended. And all of that communication, and action, occurred before he was told that FDOT said they didn’t know what he was talking about. The e-mails and Chandler’s chronicle of what happened can be found on Chandler’s FOGWatch website, just go to “media resources.”
As you can probably tell, Chandler is not a person who takes such things lightly.
He enlisted his brother’s help and began hitting different toll collection station with different size bills. They even shot video of the transactions.
And in February, Chandler filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against FDOT, Faneuil (the company that manages the turnpike) and eight top turnpike administrators. The suit claims his rights under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizures, and the 14th Amendment, which guarantees due process in legal proceedings, were violated. Chandler’s class-action suit seeks to have the policy abolished.
Lawyers for FDOT and Faneuil quickly moved to dismiss the suit. But on May 10, U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara in Tampa denied that motion.
Now, FDOT and Faneuil are appealing the denial of the motion to dismiss. Friday, Lazzara postponed the case while the appeal is being heard by an appellate court in Atlanta.
Chandler, who says he’s basically broke after three years of public records advocacy, is willing to wait.
“It’s OK,” he says. “Even if they don’t care about my civil rights, I care about theirs.”