On the national stage, Florida has a golden reputation for its broad-ranging public records laws, called "Sunshine Laws." But in practice, our government institutions are often piss-poor, stonewalling citizens with noncompliance and intimidation when they request to see certain documents.
Proving that point has become the life's work of Joel Chandler, an open-government activist and the proprietor of FogWatch.org. A former copy-machine salesman and business consultant, the Lakeland resident has spent the past four years roaming from public institution to public institution, dropping public records requests along the way. If he's met with resistance, he files a lawsuit -- and he's filed more than 100 so far.
"I've only lost two at the trial level," he says. "I don't make a habit of filing a lawsuit unless I'm absolutely certain I'm going to win."
Last November, Chandler and his brother Robert took a three-day swing through South Florida. Along they way, they knocked on the door at local police departments. Their request was simple: a quick perusal of the visitor logs.
"It's literally something they put in the hands of anyone who walks through the door," Chandler says. "It's hard for me to imagine asking for something that would make it easier for them to comply with."
Among the constitutional offenders Chandler encountered were the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Coral Gables Police Department, the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office, the Boynton Beach Police Department, and the City of Hallandale Beach.
"We have filed 41 lawsuits since November," he says. "We have about 45 more that are pending; the lawsuits are drafted."
For Chandler, there's little money or glory in being a constant nuisance to government entities. He doesn't make any money off the verdicts in his favor, which usually amount to just lawyers' fees. Since starting the website, he's had to sell off personal possessions like cars and guitars to pay to keep the fight going.
As of late, Chandler's evangelizing has found sympathetic ears. FogWatch recently took on three volunteer employees to help Chandler craft records requests. In January, he had a sit-down with Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and spoke before the body's Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability.
"We have enormously broad public-records laws, but there's no enforcement," he says. "If they are going to be enforced, they have to be enforced by private citizens."
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