By Alex Butler
The Cutler Bay Town Council has unanimously approved a resolution to settle with Citizens Awareness Foundation Inc. (CAFI) regarding claims that the town violated Florida’s public-records law.
CAFI sued the town in February after its executive director, Joel Chandler, entered the clerk’s office at Town Hall and requested a record that showed the town’s most recent transaction with the Florida League of Cities.
According to Chandler, he was told to fill out a public-records request form that would have made him disclose personal information, a violation of Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes. In settling the suit, the town agreed to pay $2,250 for CAFI’s attorney’s fees.
“It should have been a really simple request to fulfill,” Chandler said. “A copy of an invoice or a canceled check or something. The lady behind the counter insisted that I make my public records request using a form. When I asked her if that was her policy or something she wanted me to do, she made it clear that it was a town policy.”
Mayor Ed MacDougall said he believes that the foundation may have had other motives in filing the suit.
“According to the law, you have to say specifically, yes we can do that for you,” MacDougall said. “The clerk comes out and they have to be able to provide the information. It’s really obscure. Then they turn around and they sue you for $2,000 or $2,500.
“They hit every single city for attorney’s fees. We opted to just pay it. It’s one of those nuisance things, and it’s a shame that attorneys do that,” MacDougall said.
CAFI has also sued Florida City, Pinecrest and Homestead, among other cities in Miami-Dade County. Mitchell Bierman, the attorney for Cutler Bay and Pinecrest, said his firm, Weiss Serota, represents a number of cities where similar events have happened in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and elsewhere.
“This has happened in at least three of our cities that we represent,” Bierman said. “All three of the cities had a similar experience where individuals requested a particular document that most cities would have available. Through various circumstances the plaintiffs alleged that they were denied the document they wanted, had to wait or a similar claim to Cutler Bay. . . .
“In each case, they made a low settlement demand that was perhaps calculated to be lower than what the city may incur defending a lawsuit, and in each case the city settled,” Bierman said.
CAFI, which has an office in Deerfield Beach, was incorporated on Jan. 27. Attorney William Ring incorporated the nonprofit group, and is listed as an initial officer/director with the Florida Division of Corporations.
As part of the settlement, Cutler Bay also agreed to display a copy of the 2014 edition of the state’s Government in the Sunshine manual in the lobby of Town Hall for one year in exchange for the claims being dropped.
“They just find a little place where they can collect money, and that’s what they do,” MacDougall said. “I think it’s shameful and disgusting, but you can either spend $25,000 defending it and maybe lose or pay it off. Unfortunately, what we decided as a commission was the business side of it. You don’t waste the taxpayers money on something that you may not even win.”
MacDougall said he believes the “lawyers” are using a loophole to “extract money from taxpayers, because they can.”
Chandler counters that the privately funded nonprofit foundation, made up of three board members with various backgrounds, has not pocketed one cent.
“The foundation hasn’t collected a penny,” Chandler said. “Not one cent. That’s utter nonsense. Our attorneys got paid just like theirs got paid. The idea that we are doing this to collect attorney’s fees is nonsensical. I don’t make any more money or less money. I get a salary and I don’t get paid a bonus for litigating.
“The reason we litigate is because apparently the mayor and Town Council is not taking seriously their commitment to the Florida Constitution and the people’s right to know,” he said. “That’s the problem. If people like the mayor or Town Council of Cutler Bay don’t like what we do, then obey the law.”
Chandler said he had personally filed more than 200 public-records lawsuits before joining CAFI in January. He previously worked as a copy machine salesman.
“I’m sorry that the mayor wants to blame-shift,” Chandler said. “But if the mayor wants to see the genesis of the problem or why the law should happen, he might want to stand in front of a mirror. . . .
“We want them to fix the problem,” Chandler said. “We’re not looking for opportunities to sue people. We are looking for people to start doing the right thing.”