Attorney’s legal opinion delays purchase of police camera systems

By SHELLY WILKISON

 A request from the Liberty Hill Police Department to utilize monies from the Municipal Court’s Technology Fund to purchase in-car video equipment was tabled Monday.  For the second time in two weeks, the Council tabled the request after the City’s Attorney claimed the Technology Fund can not be used for law enforcement equipment.  

Two weeks ago, Attorney Cathy Riedel told Council members that the Technology Fund could not be used for purposes that do not directly benefit the Municipal Court. As a result of her legal opinion, the Council voted to table the item.

Police Chief Randy Williams says the portable microphones worn by officers on their uniforms, which are connected to the in-car camera system, do not work properly. He said the failing, outdated audio equipment can not be repaired and requested monies be transferred  within police department budgeted funds, seizure funds and from the Technology Fund to help pay for new camera systems totalling $22,000.

Williams said the audio commonly cuts out making the video of traffic stops unreliable.

He disagreed with Ms. Riedel’s assessment of whether the Technology Fund could be used to purchase the equipment, and provided Council members with information he obtained from the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center showing approved technology including a photograph of an in-car camera system like the one he is trying to purchase.

Ms. Riedel, a former employee of the TMCEC, said two weeks ago that equipment purchased using the Court’s Technology Fund is “intended for use strictly by the court, not for use of law enforcement.” Approved items would help secure the court or improve the functions of the court, she said.

“I stand by my legal opinion that this fund is not intended for that use,” Ms. Riedel said Monday.

“I’m not here to argue with the City Attorney,” Williams said, “but  based on what’s on their (TMCEC) website, they clearly believe it’s acceptable.”

Chief Williams said the delay in replacing the faulty equipment increases the City’s liability.

As an example, he pointed to a recent incident where a neighboring city’s police officer shot a dog at a residence where he was attempting to serve a warrant. He said the audio of the incident would indicate whether the officer commanded the dog to stop before shots could be heard. If only video of the incident was available, the officer’s commands could not be heard.

“That’s the type of liability it (functioning audio equipment) keeps us out of,” Williams said.

“It (the Fund) is not limited to items used in it (the Court), but items that benefit the court in collecting evidence,” Williams said.

In addition to in-car camera systems, other items on the website include GPS systems and license plate readers — both used strictly by law enforcement.

After Council member Liz Rundzieher made a motion seconded by Council member Elizabeth Branigan to fund the purchase from the Technology Fund, City Manager Greg Boatright questioned the Council about rejecting the legal advice of the Attorney.

“When do we accept the legal counsel’s advice and when do we reject it?” he asked. “If the legal counsel says no, yet you vote to do it, where do we go from there?”

“It appears that the Council has confidence that this (Technology Fund) can be used,” Mayor Jamie Williamson responded.

After the Attorney stood by her previous opinion, Mrs. Rundzieher and Ms. Branigan withdrew the  motion and instead motioned to table the item again. The Council voted 4-1 to table with Council member Vicki Brewer casting the no vote.

While no action was taken Monday, the Council met with attorneys in closed session to evaluate the City’s contract with the Bojorquez Law Firm. Then, it considered a proposal by the law firm of Russell & Rodriguez, which previously represented the City.

It has been one year since the Bojorquez firm was retained to handle the City’s legal business. After the May 2012 council elections, officials voted not to renew the contract with the Georgetown firm of Russell & Rodriguez, which had represented the City since it was incorporated in 1999.

In an unusual move, Council members Connie Fuller and Wendell McLeod left the executive session soon after the attorneys from the Borjorquez firm returned to the Council Chamber. They were followed by Boatright. The remaining Council members — Mayor Williamson, Vicki Brewer, Mrs. Rundzieher and Ms. Branigan — stayed in executive session with Rodriguez.

When the entire Council reconvened, they voted unanimously to table the Bojorquez contract renewal and the proposal from Russell & Rodriguez.

The Council also discussed how to update the City’s comprehensive plan and the Unified Development Code — two documents that are critical to the city’s future development.

Boatright told the Council that the Comprehensive Plan, which is outdated, is needed if the City plans to apply for grants.

“This has been talked about in the past, but we have to get off center,” said Boatright.

Mayor Williamson wanted to know what progress the Planning & Zoning Commission had made to revise the plan.

“This was requested of them a year ago. I’d like to see the recommendations from them before we start spending money (to develop a plan),” she said.

Mrs. Fuller said the plan should be developed by professionals rather than volunteers.

“The City Council didn’t have a direction we wanted to take,” Mrs. Brewer said. “We have to decide that.”

The Council agreed to keep the Comprehensive Plan on the agenda for future meetings.

The Council also accepted sealed bids on a septic system for City Park on CR 200. The City received four bids from area companies that will be reviewed by the City Manager and considered by the Council at a future meeting.

Also Monday, the Council voted 4-1 with McLeod voting no to transfer funds from the City’s TexPool account for road maintenance and allow the utility department to spend up to $5,000 to reapir some potholes in city streets.

In other business Monday, the Council:

* Added Boatright to a list of those who can place items on meeting agendas, and

* Voted to remove a reference to audio recording from signage at City Hall.

Also Monday, the Council voted 4-1 to table a proposal by Boatright to begin charging developers to review utility plans. Mrs. Brewer said she wanted more time to discuss the idea with Boatright, who suggested developers pay the City $750 to review their plans for water or wastewater service in addition to the city engineer’s time spent in evaluation. McLeod voted  no.