Hurdles remain over public information

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The impasse between the City of Liberty Hill and The Independent over multiple requests for information under the Texas Public Information Act has been addressed through a number of conversations intended to resolve the issue, but hurdles remain in obtaining documents relating to a number of requests made in the public interest.

Primary among those is the newspaper’s effort to obtain police patrol vehicle dash camera and officer body camera footage from an incident involving a high-speed chase where Mayor Rick Hall was a passenger during a ride along.

Through its attorney, The Independent this week submitted a second request for patrol unit video and is awaiting a response from the City.

When the footage was initially requested March 2, the City appealed for an exception to disclosure to the Texas Attorney General 10 days later – the last day allowed to respond according to the Texas Public Information Act. In early May, Hall said a ruling was expected on the issue by May 25.

But in e-mail correspondence dated May 21, Liberty Hill Chief Operating Officer Lacie Hale informed The Independent that the City had no responsive documents to the request. In the correspondence, Hale said the request for a ruling from the AG was made in error and was being withdrawn.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 explained 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 {the date of the incident}, that’s not right for me to tell you what day it is.”

Hall does not deny the video exists, and the issue was discussed previously in two different interviews 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 Independent was looking for in its request for the video.

During 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 newspaper 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 timeframe you asked for, it did not exist in that timeframe. 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.”

Revenue, expense reports
On May 20, The Independent requested “City of Liberty Hill Monthly Revenue and Expense Reports (audited or unaudited) from January 2019 to April 2020”, but in a June 4 e-mail from Hale she wrote, “The City has no responsive documents to this request.”

Hall later wrote in a text message that “The request you made is for reports that used to be created by the former Finance Director. Becky (Wilkins) only runs finance reports from Encode for a finance statement to the council. If that is what you’re looking for, request a monthly Finance Statement and we will send you.”

But the reports requested were previously provided to the Council monthly, even as recently as 2018, and the City continues to use the same Encode software as before.

The Independent has filed a complaint with the AG over the issue, challenging the City’s claim that the information does not exist and seeking to force the City to provide this essential information about revenue and expenses.

Grievance
While the City provided a copy of its own investigative report – on the 10th and last day allowed to respond – regarding the grievance filed by former police chief Maverick Campbell, Liberty Hill submitted a request for a ruling from the Texas Attorney General (AG) seeking to withhold release of the grievance itself, requested by The Independent April 30.

The City Council chose not to take action on the grievance and the City considers the matter closed.

Security devices
Liberty Hill requested an exception from the AG to the release of documents relating to security devices purchased for and installed at City Hall last Fall. But a response from the AG dated May 7 indicated that the City had not produced the required explanation and documentation justifying the request for exception and therefore directed the City to provide the responsive documents.

The letter addressed to the City states: “Although you raise exceptions to disclosure, because the city has not submitted the requested information for our review, we have no basis for finding any of the information at issue excepted from disclosure. Thus we have no choice but to order the requested information released pursuant to section 552.302.”

The City has yet to respond to the AG letter or provide the requested information to The Independent as directed by the AG.

The original request, made by the newspaper on Feb. 19 was for: “A list of all security devices purchased and installed by the City at City Hall to include locks, key card access devices, alarms, cameras, monitors, etc. The company or companies contracted with for these devices as well as installation of the equipment. A cost breakdown by item for these devices including installation costs.”

Liberty Hill filed for exception with the AG on March 4.

Meeting packets
Effective with the June 8 City Council meeting, the City made The Independent aware that the regular meeting agenda packets provided to Council members would only be made available to the newspaper following an official request under the Texas Public Information Act.

The newspaper first asked for the meeting materials on Friday prior to the Monday meeting, but was informed less than two hours before meeting time of the change.

The meeting packets, containing the background details of each agenda item, are public information and are provided to Council and Board members at all City meetings and have always been provided to The Independent automatically.

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