COPPERAS COVE — The city is in the process of amending its fiscal year 2014 budget to account for an unexpected expense: more than $67,000 in legal fees, mainly from processing Freedom of Information Act requests.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, officials discussed adding an extra $67,454 to the city’s budget for legal costs, increasing that budget to $168,663 this year.
In fiscal 2013, the city spent $96,650 in legal fees.
The funds are needed because of an influx of open records requests, City Manager Andrea Gardner said.
The majority of open records requests the city receives pertain to police records. When cases are under investigation, city staff always does a 10-to-15 day consultation with the attorney general’s office about how much information is acceptable to disclose, Gardner said at the meeting.
“We have to go through that drill with the attorney general’s office because we can’t just say that they are going to allow us to withhold that information and not release it,” Gardner said.
According to the attorney general’s office and website, however, law enforcement documents containing questionable information are only required to be submitted for a ruling if the release of said information “unduly interferes” with police work or crime prevention.
Earlier at the meeting, Gardner said city staff does not have any control over the number of requests that require briefs with the attorney general’s office.
Other information government agencies do not have to disclose includes documentation related to competition or bidding, such as a real estate deal, or personnel information, such as birthdays or Social Security information.
Harker Heights, with nearly the same population as Copperas Cove, budgets $39,000 for legal fees and attorneys, City Manager David Mitchell said, and the figure has remained steady for years.
While the city does have a dual responsibility to bring forth timely information to requesters and remain mindful of handing over sensitive information, there are reference precedents and rulings on the attorney general’s website, he said.
Mitchell also said a city government could act off previous rulings on similar request cases to reduce costs.
“Most likely, Cove’s attorney fees are not paying the attorney general money. It’s the (city attorney) that they are paying to review open records requests to make sure they are not giving out information that they should not be giving out,” he said.
Complex requests could require more review, he said.
Copperas Cove uses the Denton, Navarro, Rocha, Bernal, Hyde & Zech law firm out of Austin.
On Thursday, the Herald sent a list of questions to the Copperas Cove government, asking how many freedom of information requests the city received this year and if there were other actions the city could take to reduce legal expenditures, among other questions.
City spokesman Kevin Keller said some answers could be found in the public information act and to “submit an open records request for the remainder of the information so it can be properly researched.”
Contact Courtney Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 254-501-7559