Transparency amid pandemic: Is government using COVID-19 to withhold public information?

John C Moritz, Austin Bureau USA TODAY NETWORK, Corpus Christi Caller Times

AUSTIN — Two influential state lawmakers say some state and local governments are using the coronavirus pandemic to undermine Texas' open meetings and open records laws and they are already gearing up to close loopholes when the Legislative session convenes in January.
"You're either for open government, or you're not," state Rep. Todd Hunter said during an online seminar on government transparency organized by the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation and the United Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce.
Hunter, a Corpus Christi Republican and one of the most senior members of the Texas House, joined state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, at the seminar. Also on the panel were members from the Texas Press Association and the Texas Association of Broadcasters and two editors of two Texas newspapers in the USA TODAY Network.
One key issue, compounded by the sometimes deadly coronavirus, is the lack of information relating to the disease's spread inside many of the state's nursing homes and assisted living centers.
"If you're in the business of creating speed bumps (to stop or delay the release of public information), you're not for it."
Hunter, a Corpus Christi Republican and one of the most senior members of the Texas House, joined state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, at the seminar. Also on the panel were members from the Texas Press Association and the Texas Association of Broadcasters and two editors of two Texas newspapers in the USA TODAY Network.
One key issue, compounded by the sometimes deadly coronavirus, is the lack of information relating to the disease's spread inside many of the state's nursing homes and assisted living centers.
El Paso Times Executive Editor Tim Archuleta and Mary Ann Beckett, who leads the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, said their reporters have been frustrated by inconsistent responses from numerous facilities. Some of them withhold basic counts of the number of positive COVID-19 cases or fatalities at a given facility on grounds they are protecting patient privacy.
However, the editors said, news outlets are only seeking numbers and aren't asking about residents' personal medical information.
Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, said such information not only has news value to inform local communities, but it is also important to Texans with loved ones in the care of such facilities.
Without knowing which facilities are safe and which might not be, Texans have no way to make an informed choice about their loved ones' care, he said.
"It's not a press issue, it's a people issue," Baggett said.
Hunter and Capriglione, a Republican from the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs, said they plan to address the matter during the 2021 legislative session.
"It's completely ridiculous we cannot get information about specific nursing homes," Capriglione said.
Kelley Shannon, a former Texas Capitol Bureau chief for The Associated Press who runs the state's Freedom of Information Foundation, encouraged the lawmakers to push for measures requiring governments to promptly reply to open records requests even if staff members are working from home. 
Much of those records, she said, can be accessed by computer and released via email of whether a government staffer is in the office or working remotely, Shannon said.
Baggett took it one step further: Foot-dragging bureaucrats should face sanctions for sitting on information that belongs to taxpayers.
"This happens all over the state all the time," he said. "And they get away with it."

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.