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Tension, frustrations mount as a divided City Council debates COVID-19 issues

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Weeks of debating whether to release information that would identify locations of COVID-19 outbreaks has left the City Council increasingly divided while cases of the deadly virus continue to spread throughout the community.

Attempts to have the information released have been stalled by city attorneys, overturned by a tie-breaking vote by the mayor, resulted in contentious discussions during public meetings and  led the mayor to publicly criticize some of his colleagues.

Those in favor of having the information released argue that El Pasoans will be better able to make decisions about their health, while the opposing side has expressed concerns about liability to the city and worries that businesses will be harmed.

“I am incredibly frustrated and impatient,” said city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez, one of four city representatives supporting release of more detailed information about COVID-19 outbreaks.

The El Paso Department of Public Health defines a cluster as any business or facility that has two or more positive cases of COVID-19 within the same timeframe. At issue is whether the city should release the names of businesses and facilities where there has been a cluster, without identifying individuals in the process. Numerous Texas cities provide this information.

Hernandez and city Reps. Peter Svarzbein, Alexsandra Annello and Henry Rivera have voted in favor of releasing the information to the public while city Reps. Sam Morgan, Isabel Salcido, Cissy Lizarraga and Claudia Lizette Rodriguez have consistently voted against.

Mayor Dee Margo broke a tie vote in favor of withholding the information when the topic was first discussed by council weeks ago, but left early during a recent 15-hour meeting where several items that were voted on relating to the release of cluster information failed because the mayor was not present to break tie votes.

Margo, Morgan, Salcido, Lizarraga and Rodriguez did not respond to El Paso Matters requests for comment about city COVID-19 data and the deepening divisions on City Council.

The mayor and four members of City Council — Morgan, Rivera, Annello and Hernandez — are up for re-election in November.

Frustrations mount

Hernandez said she is growing impatient with the arguments the city has given as reasoning for not releasing the cluster data.

“The concern is the risk to the city of El Paso, a government entity, or the risk to a business as opposed to the risk to El Pasoans and dying from the virus or contracting the virus and becoming very ill,” Hernandez said.

City Manager Tommy Gonzalez, right, harshly rebuked city Rep. Peter Svarzbein at the Aug. 4 council meeting after Svarzbein said it was unhelpful for the city manager to say public health officials have been wrong at times about COVID-19.

Margo has publicly said Hernandez doesn’t understand city policies, but some city representatives do not feel they are getting the information they need to move forward.

“The mayor needs to do a better job at uniting this council so that we can have a united front, but also there are members of council that are not getting the information they need or they are not getting the analysis of laws or operational information,” Hernandez said. “We don’t have the information that we need as council members so that we can disseminate to our district and to our constituents.”

Annello said she is also frustrated that city staff is only telling the council what they can or cannot do.

“There’s no push to give alternate recommendations on how we could get the same results within our legal boundaries — it’s just a yes or no. You can’t do this, we are moving on,” Annello said.

City Manager Tommy Gonzalez, who reports to the mayor and City Council, has clashed with some members at times. At the Aug. 4 meeting, he responded angrily to Svarzbein’s statement that he didn’t think it was helpful that Gonzalez said public health officials have been wrong about COVID-19 at times and said the city manager was offering editorial comments in meetings. Gonzalez shot back that he was using “facts.”

The city attorney’s office has previously acknowledged that state law allows the city to release information about locations of COVID-19 clusters but doesn’t require it to do so. So the city has chosen not to release the information, the city attorney’s office said in a June 23 letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The letter was in response to a May 25 open records request from El Paso Matters seeking more information on COVID-19 clusters in El Paso. The request sought the names of facilities or businesses identified by the Department of Public Health as a COVID-19 cluster. The request does not ask for the names of individuals. The Attorney General’s Office has not ruled on the city’s request to withhold information.

City officials have advised the council not to move forward with releasing any cluster information until Paxton issues a ruling on the request. Such a ruling is unlikely until after Labor Day.

Rodriguez criticizes colleagues

Rodriguez scolded some city representatives during the Aug. 4 meeting who had supported releasing more COVID-19 information despite recommendations from the City Attorney’s Office.

City Rep. Claudia Lizette Rodriguez upbraided four of her City Council colleagues on Aug. 4, accusing them without evidence of voting for a measure even though it was “illegal.” City Attorney Karla Nieman is at right.

“What happened at the last council meeting was completely irresponsible,” Rodriguez said. “It was also completely irresponsible behavior from the members of this council that were advised on the legality of agenda item 19.3 from Tuesday July 21 and still they voted in favor of an item that they knowingly knew was illegal. I resent that fact that their irresponsible, senseless behavior made myself and our other colleagues who voted against that item, in essence respecting the law, it made us targets for members of the media but more importantly the members of our community…”

A presentation from the City Attorney’s Office shortly after Rodriguez spoke did not support her contention that releasing the information was illegal; instead, an assistant city attorney said the public health authority and city government have discretion in what kinds of statistical information to release.

Annello said she thinks the confusion and disagreements from council are stemming from the information they are receiving from staff and what other cities and the state is releasing as far as cluster information is concerned.

“The information is not matching up,” Annello said.

The city of San Antonio lists nursing homes and health-care facilities that have had COVID-19 cases without naming individuals. 

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission recently began listing self-reported COVID-19 data on cases and deaths for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, as well as state-supported living facilities and psychiatric hospitals. The move came after the Texas Attorney General’s Office determined the agency could not withhold the information.

Mayor Margo criticizes council members

Svarzbein also said the council is not getting information about what they can release, only what they cannot release.

“That is part of the policy making process,” he said. 

Margo has called out Svarzbein, Annello and Hernandez during recent weeks for the time they take asking questions of city staff during discussions and presentations. At the July 21 meeting, Annello criticized Margo for a lack of leadership during the COVID-19 crisis, an allegation the mayor vehemently rebutted.

“Council members should not be silenced, council members should not be disrespected or their position misrepresented,” Svarzbein said. “It honestly starts from the top down. Again, in a number of City Council meetings with different mayors, there is a certain tone that needs to be expressed and that tone goes both ways. There needs to be respect regardless of which council member or the mayor that it’s coming from.”

Rivera also thinks the mayor and council need to be more respectful of one another.

“It’s not so much that we’re divided, we have people agree to disagree,” Rivera said. “We all have different matters of opinion and interpretations of what people are saying.”

Rivera said tensions arose during the July 21 meeting when he and Svarzbein sponsored an item that would have increased city testing sites as a back-up plan in case state funded testing sites were to be withdrawn. 

Rivera, whose stepdaughter contracted COVID-19, saw the need after he was turned away at a state-run site and waiting hours the following day to get tested.

“At that time I think the mayor and the opposing council misunderstood what I was trying to say,” Rivera said, adding that he was not intending for the city to take over all COVID-19 testing, rather begin to establish a plan for the future.

The item failed with the mayor breaking a tie vote against the item. The mayor also broke a tie vote during the same meeting in the first attempt to have the city begin to release cluster information to the public.

Cover photo: City Council meetings, which have been conducted on Zoom since March, have grown increasingly divisive in recent weeks.

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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