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City agrees to pay newspaper's legal fees in 10-year dispute

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City agrees to pay newspaper’s legal fees in 10-year dispute

  • The city of Garland had argued that the records requested did not have to be disclosed because they were either drafts or part of a potential legal action.

Aug. 15, 2003 — The city of Garland, Texas, agreed to pay The Dallas Morning News $99,000 for the legal fees it incurred fighting a public records request made 10 years ago.

The newspaper received the last document it requested in January 2000. Since that time, the city has fought paying the newspaper’s legal fees.

In its original request, the Morning News asked for documents concerning a former city finance director’s termination and the city’s firing and hiring practices.

The city government originally sought a court order in October 1993 declaring that the newspaper was not entitled to the materials, three weeks after a reporter requested them. The city argued that the documents were not public under the state open records law because of a potential legal action between the former official, James Hager, and the city.

The newspaper then sued the city for violating the open records law by denying access to the documents.

The newspaper also had sought a memorandum written by the city manager and circulated among members of the city council in August 1993, which the city later claimed was only a draft that was not used in any official business and, therefore, exempt from disclosure under the public records law.

State District Judge Ted Akin ruled in 1994 that the city must provide the newspaper with all materials gathered since 1990 on Hager’s job performance and termination, a list of employee terminations at managerial levels since January 1992, and a list of hires at the managerial level or above since 1992. The judge also ordered Garland to pay the newspaper’s legal costs.

Garland appealed the decision and was granted a new trial.

A district court jury ruled in favor of the newspaper and awarded the News an additional $160,000 in attorney fees.

The city appealed again, and was granted a request for a third trial. But city officials decided that another trial would be too expensive.

Katherine Garner, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas told The Associated Press, “This case in general is great for the Texas Public Information Act and the citizens of Texas. It shows government officials can’t withhold whatever records they feel like.”

Garland is a city of about 216,000 located northeast of Dallas.

(City of Garland v. Dallas Morning News; Dallas Morning News v. City of Garland; Media counsel: Paul Watler, Jenkins & Gilchrest, Dallas)

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© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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