A four year legal battle over a flat rate for public records costs the city of Lakeland big money. (Photo via Zachary Korb/Creative Commons)

A four year legal battle over a flat rate for public records costs the city of Lakeland big money. (Photo via Zachary Korb/Creative Commons)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

After a four-year legal battle over public records, the city of Lakeland is paying $160,000 as part of a settlement.

Joel Chandler, a Lakeland resident, filed the lawsuit in 2010 against the city’s Police Department because officials overcharged for a public records request.

According to The Ledger, the Lakeland Police Department charged Chandler “a flat rate of $23.50 rather than providing the public records free or basing charges on the specific work to be done.”

The Ledger reported,

In the settlement, agreed to last month and paid earlier this month, the city agreed to immediately end LPD’s “flat fee” practice and to pay Chandler’s lawyers for their work on the case.

LPD 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 LPD stopped charging the improper $23.50 flat fee, but the city refused.

Chandler is a public records advocate who used to be the executive director of the Citizens Awareness Foundation. Chandler left the foundation because he had concerns about the group’s partnership with the O’Boyle Law Firm.

In practice, the group has acted less as a public records advocacy group and more as a legal outfit with quotas looking to obtain cash settlements from every lawsuit they filed, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found.

Chandler stated that he worried the coordination “may be criminal, fraudulent and unethical,” according to an affidavit he filed.

In this recent case from Lakeland, though, Chandler claims the hefty bill the city had to pay was due to city officials’ refusal to change its practices.

According to The Ledger,

Chandler said Mallory was a big reason the legal fees were expensive, saying the LPD lawyer “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 LPD’s or the city’s position on the lawsuit.

Mallory said he told former LPD 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.

The Ledger reported that a consultant recommended the LPD use the $23.50 flate fee for requests more than a decade ago. The recommendation came at a time when the department was losing a lot of money on public record requests, the newspaper wrote.

However, Mallory told the Ledger than no one had complained before about the fee. The newspaper also described Chandler as “an advocate for public access to records and has been criticized as a nuisance by governments he has sued.”

Chandler told the Ledger, though, that the lawsuit was not about obtaining a large settlement.

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 LPD had 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.”

The Ledger reports Lakeland officials have been forced to pay up for not properly following public records laws in the past.

The newspaper wrote that in 2013 “the city spent more than $225,000 on legal fees for city employees involved in a grand jury investigation, with much of the money going to try and keep the grand jury’s report from being publicly released.”