One uncomfortable reality for some who collect their paychecks from taxpayer- and ratepayer-supported entities is that the public has a timely right to know what they are doing and how they are doing it.

In Texas, however, the public’s right to know is always qualified, despite the existence of the Texas Public Information Act. A continuing legal fight over access to meetings and public records has been waged since the 1970s, when public corruption scandals finally forced legislators in Austin to act. Yet the standoff continues today.

Access to government contracts was made even more difficult by a 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Boeing v. Paxton. Senate Bill 943, which took effect Jan. 1, attempts to address some of the issues generated by the case, according to this posting by the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas (FOIF).

Now the coronavirus outbreak and ensuing shutdown are being used to deny or delay media requests for timely release of public information. As noted in this Austin American-Statesman article, state law passed after Hurricane Harvey was intended to give beleaguered local governments time and space to reorganize, but it now is being used to block the flow of public records.

Nursing Home Outbreaks in Texas

We do not know which long-term care facilities, particularly nursing homes, in Texas have seen residents contract and die from the coronavirus. Most states disclose such data, but Texas withholds that information. More than 40 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Texas have occurred in nursing homes, yet state authorities refuse to release that information even as they belatedly ordered the testing of all nursing home residents and employees last week.

People with a family member in a long-term care facility or who are shopping for a facility are told that privacy laws in Texas prohibit the release of such information. State elected leaders and those at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission have refused to join the majority of states and make such information available and ignored a call by the FOIF to release the information to Texas media and the public.

“Accurate information about the spread of coronavirus is essential for Texans as they strive to understand the seriousness and scope of this pandemic,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the FOI Foundation. “Knowing which nursing homes are impacted is important as we try to protect the health of our families and our communities. It also contributes to effective public oversight of our government’s operations.”

Here in San Antonio, Metro Health officials are acting with greater transparency. We know all about the 18 elderly residents and one worker at the Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center who have died of COVID-19 in recent weeks, and we know 74 other residents and 29 staff members have tested positive for the virus, and city officials also make public data about any coronavirus cases at other local nursing homes.

The state’s medical privacy laws have been used as a screen by the pro-business lobby to protect the owners of such businesses rather than the privacy of residents. It’s no secret that many operators of low-budget nursing homes and other facilities are routinely cited for negligent conditions and practices by state inspectors, and the owners pay the resulting fines imposed with no other repercussions. It’s the cost of doing business. Life goes on as usual until the next inspection.

More than one such inspector has privately told me how frustrated they are to see their reports shelved and conditions left unimproved. Those who can afford private pay care fare far better. Yet most people do not have the funds to pay $5,000 or more per month for such care and protection.

Who is Buying Up the River Walk?

We do not know the buyer’s identity or the sales price as CPS Energy negotiates contract terms for a large portfolio of utility-owned properties it is vacating on San Antonio’s River Walk as it prepares to move to a new headquarters campus. We have no idea what the presumptive buyer intends to do with such valuable real estate. We know nothing about the losing bidders of their offers, either.

Most readers are probably unaware of just how much property is at stake here, but the sale of properties on and along the River Walk is of a scale unlike anything we have seen in memory. They include:

  • CPS Energy headquarters, 145 Navarro St.
  • The garage and office space at 146 Navarro St.
  • The Tower Life garage, 310 S. St. Mary’s St.
  • The parking lot on Navarro and Villita streets surrounding the Mexican Consulate.
  • La Villita Assembly Building

How Much Did IDEA Public Schools Pay Its Departing Co-Founder?

Tom Torkelson, former CEO of IDEA Public Schools, has been the highest-paid public school leader in Texas, yet a separation agreement recently negotiated by the school board has not been released. Torkelson has been the visionary behind the state’s fastest-growing public charter school system, one rooted in the Rio Grande Valley that has expanded to San Antonio, Houston, and other parts of the state and now is growing beyond Texas.

No one doubts Torkelson’s singular impact on the growth of quality public charters in Texas and the opportunities created for inner-city families by the system’s 96 campuses, but failure to make a timely release of the agreement only fuels critics who say charter schools receive state funding while acting more like private schools.

As IDEA’s CEO, Torkelson did not fall within a traditional Texas Education Agency category requiring public posting of his salary, last reported to be about $550,000 in 2018. The top job in public school districts is superintendent, a salary that must be posted publicly.

In fairness, Torkelson functioned as founder and entrepreneur building an enterprise, not simply as a superintendent. Given his success, there is no doubt IDEA’s directors and many donors believe he was worth every penny. Within IDEA, the superintendent position has been filled by his co-founder JoAnn Gama. Last month she ascended to the CEO position while retaining the superintendent title, suggesting the two jobs really should be held by one person.

By comparison, Brian Woods, the superintendent of the Northside Independent School District, San Antonio’s largest with more than 107,000 students, earns about $350,000 annually.

2019-2020 superintendent salaries as of October 2019 for Texas’ Region 20 Credit: Courtesy / Texas Education Agency

The record request in this instance isn’t about reporting Torkelson’s exact salary. It’s about informing taxpayers how many public dollars are being paid to him upon his departure compared with separation agreements given departing public school leaders, who often receive lucrative payouts at taxpayer expense.

The Public’s Right to Know

In all three cases, the public’s right to know supersedes the right of public officials to keep such matters secret.

There is a cat-and-mouse quality to the daily interactions between reporters and some public officials and their media liaisons. Those withholding the information know that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is unlikely to rule quickly, or often enough, against them if loopholes in the law can be asserted.

Information often is released long after the law’s 10-day review period has passed. In some instances, the only recourse for the media is legal action, which can be expensive and time-consuming. Sometimes media entities pursue legal action; other times editors conclude the cost is too high and the information goes undisclosed.

The right to know covers a lot of ground: how tax dollars are allocated and spent, how much people on public payrolls are paid, how lawsuits against public entities are litigated and settled, how public contracts and real estate transactions are bid and awarded, how decisions of all kinds are made by legislative and municipal officeholders, public utilities, school districts, and the information that governmental entities gather and the actions taken in the exercise of regulatory duties and powers.

Why does this matter so much? Look at the quality of society in countries where government is not subject to public scrutiny and there is your answer. Not even a pandemic should eliminate the transparency that is crucial to open society and democracy.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.