By Rick Rousos
LAKELAND | Public records watchdog Joel Chandler has resigned from his $120,000 per-year job as executive director of a South Florida organization dedicated to open government.
Chandler, 50, who lives in Lakeland, had worked for seven years with little or no pay in fighting for open government records and meetings. In late January, while still based in Lakeland, he joined Citizens Awareness Foundation as its chief executive.
The job took him around the state.
“My decision to resign was the result of a series of irreconcilable philosophical and ethical differences,” Chandler said Tuesday.
Chandler said his main concern in suing government agencies has always been to “get them to fix the problems” in providing public records, not to collect money in a settlement other than for reasonable lawyers fees and court costs.
He said that hasn’t been the case at the Citizens Awareness Foundation.
Chandler said a law firm established by the founder of Citizens Awareness Foundation has been too concerned about collecting fees and cited a particular case where he said a charitable organization was charged lawyers fees padded by thousands of dollars.
Marty O’Boyle, the founder of Citizens Awareness Foundation, said he is not on the board of that organization and not involved in any of its day-to-day operations. His son works at the law firm O’Boyle established.
O’Boyle said the case involving the charitable organization could have been handled better.
But, he said, the foundation does have a goal of, and has been active with, trying to get governments to follow the law in providing public records.
Chandler said the decision about which government agencies were to be sued and the details of settlements were supposed to be his, but weren’t. O’Boyle said when you’re a partner, that doesn’t mean you get to make all the decisions.
O’Boyle said people at the foundation were “totally shocked” by Chandler’s resignation.
“Nobody saw it coming.”
Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, said Chandler will be hard to replace.
“It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to find someone with Joel’s drive and enthusiasm for open government issues, and I’m relieved to know that he intends to continue his role as both activist and advocate,” Petersen said.
Chandler is widely known in Polk County, particularly as a nemesis of the Polk County School Board.
As a result of a records dispute with Chandler, School Board lawyer Wes Bridges pleaded no contest in May 2009 to a misdemeanor charge of violating public records law.
That came after a State Attorney’s Office investigation concluded he failed to release records to Chandler in a timely manner.
Polk County Judge John Kirkland fined Bridges $275, and he was also ordered to pay $150 for investigative costs.
Among a slew of victories, Chandler won a lawsuit for records of a privately operated prison. His public records research led to a suit against the state Department of Transportation over a policy that pulled aside drivers who tried to pay Florida Turnpike tolls with a $20 bill or higher while officials wrote down the make, model and tag number of the car, records that he said showed racial profiling.
He also used public records to show that a charity that received more than $400,000 in public funds had spent less than $10,000 on the designated program.