By Steve Miller
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Gadfly has a negative connotation to it, without doubt. It conjures an image of a aging gentleman with too much time on his hands, fretting about how government today is intruding on his personal rights.
Then there’s Joel Chandler, a rather heroic public records advocate.
That sounds so much better than gadfly, no?
He first hit our pages in 2011 as the guy who sued the Polk County Public School District for employee health insurance records and won. Most recently, he hit the news again when he challenged Volusia County, filing a complaint after he was refused access to the county jail’s visitor list.
As reported in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Chandler walked into the Volusia County Jail in November 2012 and asked to see the log of visitors. Every jail, or prison for that matter, keeps a written log of who comes and goes to see prisoners. The log often includes names, date of birth, license plate number in areas where that may be pertinent, and often address or driver’s license number.
According to the story, which doubles as a profile of Chandler:
In his complaint, Chandler said he walked into the jail’s visitation area in November and talked to a woman at the front desk. He told her he wanted to inspect the jail visitors log — a public record that’s usually readily at hand. She asked for Chandler’s name, but he was reluctant to give it. He asked if she had the log. She said she did, but after a delay, called for another officer.
That officer asked Chandler why he was at the jail, then said he’d have to make an official request before he could see the jail log.
Chandler responded: “I just did.” The officer said the verbal request wasn’t enough.
The county disputed Chandler’s account in its response to the complaint, the paper noted, without specificity:
In its response, Volusia argued it made the jail log available “within a reasonable time and under reasonable conditions” allowed by state law. Exempted information in the log had to be redacted. The county eventually sent Chandler what he requested without charging him any fees.
Chandler is a true gadfly, as we look at a number of definitions — “a person who persistently
The former copy machine salesman has filed and dropped more than 100 lawsuits against counties and municipalities over the past six years, and since 2008 has run a website, Florida Open Government Watch, or FOGWatch, devoted to open records crusades of both himself and others.
“I’ve won about 98 percent of these cases,” says Chandler, who now devotes himself to records pursuits full time. “One I lost both at trial and on appeal.”
He said the success rate speaks not so much to the legal talents of his lawyers and himself — he’s done about 40 cases pro se — but more to the unwillingness of public officials to comply with the law.
“They get real defensive real fast,” Chandler says. “And they love to engage me in gotcha litigation. But I’m more like the cop on the highway with the radar gun. He doesn’t cause people to speed, but just documents what’s there I do the same thing. I don’t trick them into breaking the law. I just document it.”