City ducks records request

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Less than two weeks after establishing a new policy for handling records requests through the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), the City of Liberty Hill dodged a request for body cam footage from The Independent despite admissions by city officials that the footage exists.

The video footage in question allegedly contains video and audio of Mayor Rick Hall using profanity, making inappropriate comments and accessing the police unit computer while engaged in a high-speed chase that occurred during a ride along.

In e-mail correspondence dated May 21, Chief Operating Officer, and newly appointed public information officer Lacie Hale informed The Independent that the City had no responsive documents to the request submitted on March 2.

That FOI request was for “body cam or police unit video and audio of former Liberty Hill Police Department Officer Farmer between July 2018 and August 2018 involving a pursuit where Mayor Rick Hall was a passenger in the vehicle,” and was submitted after The Independent received the information regarding the allegations made about Hall’s conduct.

While the City claims the date on the request was inaccurate, its responses to the request since it was first submitted appear to be an attempt to block release of the footage.

Once requested, Liberty Hill had 10 days to provide the information to the newspaper or submit an appeal to the Texas Attorney General (AG) seeking an exception to the Freedom of Information Act. The City filed the appeal with the AG on the last day, and in early May, Hall said a ruling was expected on the issue by May 25.

But in the correspondence last week claiming that the City had no documents to provide regarding the request, Hale said the request for a ruling from the AG was made in error and was being withdrawn.

“That was done inaccurately because somebody didn’t understand the question and they just appealed the circumstance and not the actual footage,” Hall said after the e-mail was sent. “You can appeal that to the AG. We will have to turn over the body cam footage to the AG in the right date range, then they would have to make a ruling on it at that point. I can’t tell you what day it is, that’s not right for me to tell you what day it is.”

Hall does not deny the video exists, and discussed it previously in two different interviews with The Independent regarding outstanding FOI requests, once in April and once in May.

In talking through a list of requests in April, Hall said, “I know there is one for dash cam footage. Did you get that back from our lawyer that it is still an active case?”

Hall went on to say the request had been appealed to the AG because it remained under investigation.

“It’s still an open case that they’re trying to get him arrested so they have all the evidence. It is a joint effort because it is across two counties,” he said.

He also asked what specifically the newspaper was looking for in its request for the video.

In a May 5 phone interview, with Hale and City Attorney Tad Cleaves present, Hall again mentioned the appeal to the AG regarding the specific video, never seeking verification or clarity about which video specifically The Independent was seeking.

“We’re waiting on a response back from the AG, we’re expecting to have that sometime around May 25,” Hall said at that time. “That is still a current, active case right now and because the person involved that was riding the motorcycle has not been apprehended.”

But after the e-mail was received from Hale last week, Hall clarified the City’s response, citing incorrect dates on the request — not that it was an open criminal case.

“The key to it is, and this is why Lacie put in the bottom of that e-mail, when you’re asking for body cams, it did not exist in the months that you asked for,” Hall said, again verifying that the footage does exist. “The time frame you asked for, it did not exist in that time frame. I know it sounds like we’re being difficult, but this is part of the process that the City has failed in a long time of not providing public information by the law.”

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