Silent on Coronavirus Testing Numbers, City of Abilene Flirts With Refusing All Public Information Requests
ABILENE, TX — The City of Abilene briefly considered suspending the requirement to respond to public information requests. During an emergency meeting of the Abilene City Council this morning, council members heard Abilene City Manager Robert Hanna suggest suspension of providing information as a menu option.
On the heels of this are the City’s silence on Abilene-wide testing numbers for the coronavirus. The City of Abilene Health Department has not released any numbers to the media and has so far be unable to tell the public how many coronavirus tests have been taken in the city.
Meanwhile, in San Angelo, the City of San Angelo Public Information office releases the numbers daily, even on weekends. San Angelo informs the public about how many were tested, how many tests were still at the lab, and how many are infected.
So far, neither city has reported a confirmed case of the coronavirus.
But why hasn’t the City of Abilene released any numbers on coronavirus testing?
If the city council in Abilene approved it, the City of Abilene wouldn’t have to release numbers.
In the Public Information Handbook published by the Texas Attorney General, it notes a provision that allows governmental bodies to temporarily suspend responding to requests for public information:
“The 86th Legislature passed Senate Bill 494, which added section 552.233 of the Government Code. This section provides for the temporary suspension of the requirements of the Public Information Act when a governmental body is impacted by a catastrophe. 93 A “catastrophe” means a condition or occurrence that interferes with the ability of a governmental body to comply with the requirements of the Public Information Act.94 In order to suspend the requirements of the Act, a governmental body must provide notice to the OAG in accordance with subsections 552.233(c) and 552.233(e) of the Government Code.95 A copy of the catastrophe notice form can be found on the Office of the Attorney General’s website.”
“We can suspend requests for up to 14 days,” explained City Manager Robert Hanna at this morning’s meeting. “It puts everything into a holding pattern when the disaster is going on.”
After the timeframe of the emergency suspension, the City staff would have to handle the backlog of requests. By then, testing details would be stale and likely not newsworthy.
Hanna told the council he was neutral on whether or not to pass the suspension. He said he wanted the council to have all options on the table.
In the end, Abilene’s council tabled the agenda item and will allow public information requests to continue to be answered without suspension. Then the council extended the emergency declaration for another seven days that closes Abilene City Hall to the public.
There still are no numbers published about how many citizens in Abilene have been tested even if there are no confirmed coronavirus cases there.
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