The city recently paid $95,000 to settle a lawsuit over how Lakeland police charged for public records. And, when legal fees are included, the suit wound up costing the city at least $160,000.
The dispute started when Lakeland resident and open records advocate Joel Chandler requested records and the department charged a flat rate of $23.50 rather than providing the public records free or basing charges on the specific work to be done.
Chandler sued in March 2010, saying such a charge for fulfilling simple records requests is improper.
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.
“This was a classic example of an agency doubling down on stupid,” Chandler said Thursday.
One city commissioner, Justin Troller, was blunt Thursday in his criticism of the way the matter was handled.
“If we were doing things right in the first place, we wouldn’t need to settle anything,” he said. “Someone needs to be held accountable, and I’m going to find out who it is.”
Roger Mallory, an LPD lawyer, worked on the lawsuit. Chandler said GrayRobinson wasn’t brought in until the final stages, and the law firm’s job was to negotiate a settlement.
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.
“I did what lawyers do,” he said. “I defended my client. I did what I was told.”
Why not settle in the beginning, before the legal fees began to pile up?
“You should ask (City Attorney) Tim McCausland that,” Mallory said.
McCausland, who reports directly to the City Commission, did not return an email or phone call Thursday from The Ledger.
McCausland reviewed the settlement with commissioners weeks ago.
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.”
Mallory said a consultant recommended the fee to LPD probably 10 or 15 years ago because the department was losing money providing public records.
“Nobody ever complained about it except Joel Chandler,” Mallory said. Chandler is an advocate for public access to records and has been criticized as a nuisance by governments he has sued.
Commissioner Keith Merritt said he didn’t know why the city took a “hard-nosed view” when it disputed the case.
“We could have gone along with the spirit of the public records act,” he said.
But he said the city was “overly technical” when it responded to the request.
In addition, the city spent too much money, Merritt said.
“We should have never found ourselves in a four-year litigation that found ourselves awarding $95,000,” he said.
But Merritt said LPD may see something positive out of the settlement. He liked the idea of the First Amendment Foundation providing training to employees.
“It doesn’t overcome $95,000, but that’s a positive thing,” he said.
Merritt, who is himself a lawyer, said McCausland and LPD should not have contested the public records request.
“As a lawyer, there are very few cases where you can’t go back and say you’d do things differently,” Merritt said. “He should have.”
Mayor Howard Wiggs said he didn’t think the city did anything wrong.
“It wasn’t like we were intentionally doing anything untoward,” he said.
Commissioner Phillip Walker said he didn’t remember details about the settlement. But he said he remembers McCausland mentioning it.
“I trust his judgment,” Walker said.
Some commissioners have questioned McCausland’s financial decisions in the past.
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.
An appeal court ultimately ordered the report released. It criticized former Womack for not complying with Florida’s public records laws and recommended she be removed as chief. She quit her job earlier this year.
It was McCausland’s job to monitor legal bills related to the grand jury and to ensure they stayed under a cap set by the City Commission.
Besides the bills for lawyers, McCausland’s office also paid a Tampa public relations firm to help with fallout from grand jury report and from a widespread sex scandal at LPD.
An investigation by The Ledger showed those public relations bills reached more than $130,000.
When The Ledger reported the amount of money the city had spent, Wiggs said he didn’t know the total had reached that amount and said it was “unfathomable” for city officials not to update city commissioners on how much was being spent on the public relations work.