Joel Chandler, a Lakeland, Fla., man who has sued dozens of state and local government agencies over their failure to honor the state’s open records law, is the winner of the 2012 Sunshine Week Local Hero Award.
The award is announced at the start of Sunshine Week, March 11-17 in 2012, a nationwide initiative focusing on transparency issues at all levels of government. Sunshine Week is co-sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It is funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Gridiron Club and Foundation of Washington, D.C.
Chandler began litigating violations of Florida’s public records four years ago, when his local school board refused a records request. Since then, he has filed more than two dozen open records lawsuits, securing the release of school, police, prison and medical examiner records.
Chandler, who runs a data collection business, calls his online review of government transparency in the state FOGWatch (Florida Open Government Watch).
The second-place Local Hero Award goes to Eric Rachner of Seattle, owner of a computer security company, who forced the Seattle police department to make public the records of police activity videotaped by patrol car dashboard cameras.
Rachner’s research showed that police were selectively withholding video records that might discredit specific arrests. He’s posted the police records on his website, www.seattlepolicevideo.com, which has prompted several media investigations and other public scrutiny of Seattle police arrests.
The third-place winner is Suzanne McCrory of Mamaroneck, N.Y., who, without an attorney, successfully sued her village twice for withholding records. In one case, it took her several years to obtain the financial disclosure statement filed by the chairman of the planning board. Ultimately, she got the records, the chairman resigned, and the village modified its ethics code to ensure that disclosure statements are routinely available to the public.
Chandler will be rewarded with an expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the ASNE Annual Convention, April 2-4, where he will be recognized for his open government achievements. Rachner and McCrory will receive $500 and $250, respectively.
Judges for the 2012 Sunshine Week Local Hero Awards were: Andrew Alexander, distinguished visiting professional at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University; Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition; Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; and ASNE Sunshine Week Co-chair, Pete Weitzel.
Chandler’s open government activism began five years ago with a simple request for a copy of the school district’s health insurance policy. The district refused, releasing the information only after Chandler complained to the state attorney’s office.
A year later, he filed a request for names, addresses and other information about the district’s 13,000 employees. When the district refused, he sued and won. Chandler told the Lakeland Ledger that his fight with the district was like “dealing with a bully.”
He began aggressively looking for other ways agencies were hindering citizen access to information, which led to a successful suit against the area medical examiner over fees charged for autopsy reports. Chandler also sued the Lakeland police for its “flat fee” policy, and he recently won a lawsuit for records of a privately operated prison. His public records research led to a suit against the 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 says show 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.
On his FOGWatch website, Chandler quotes a 2009 report of the Governor's Commission on Open Government Reform: "...the burden of enforcing violations of Florida's open meetings and public records laws generally falls to citizens who have few alternatives other than seeking an injunction or filing suit in civil court to compel compliance." He adds: FOGWatch “cheerfully accepts that burden because we are dedicated to the principles that our government serves at the pleasure of the governed and functions best when citizens know what is being done in their name and at their expense.”
For more information about Sunshine Week and the Local Hero Awards, go to www.sunshineweek.org, or contact ASNE Sunshine Week Co-chair Pete Weitzel at firstname.lastname@example.org, Reporters Committee Sunshine Week Co-chair Debra Gersh Hernandez at email@example.com or Knight Foundation Vice President/Communications Andrew Sherry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founded in 1922 as the professional society for the top editors at the nation’s daily newspapers, ASNE now includes among its members news leaders from a wide range of news organizations, wire services, journalism schools, and journalism research and training organizations. ASNE provides leadership training and networking opportunities for news leaders, and promotes open government and the First Amendment, professional journalism, journalism education, and newsroom diversity. For more information, go to www.asne.org or follow us on Twitter @NewsEditors.
About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.