In a new twist on a controversial public information ruling by the state Supreme Court, the South Texas town of Pharr is seeking to withhold from the public the salary of its new city manager, claiming that divulging the figure would put it at a business disadvantage.
Pharr City Manager Alex Meade was hired in November. A reporter at The Progress Times in McAllen filed a public records request for Meade’s contract in December. The city is fighting it, referring the request to the state attorney general’s office.
“The city competes with other cities in attracting businesses, economically, and in attracting city leadership with certain skills at a competitive rate,” wrote Pharr City Attorney Patricia Rigney. “The release of this information would cause harm to the city of Pharr’s interest in retaining a qualified, experienced City Manager at competitive rates … .” Rigney did not respond to email and text requests for comments for this story.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that a law allowing public bodies to withhold financial information applies to most situations in which the information would give an advantage to a competitor or bidder. The ruling extended that right to private companies doing business with public entities.
The 2015 ruling stemmed from a request for a copy of the contract between the Port of San Antonio and Boeing, and it created a new, lower threshold for withholding information. Where once companies could withhold information by showing that the release would give competitors a “decisive advantage,” now they need to show only an advantage.
Pharr is one of only a few cases in which a city has used the ruling to withhold salary figures on public officials, widely regarded as public information. The salary figures are helpful to voters who make decisions on the direction of their governments.
Most recently, voters in San Antonio elected in November to cap the salary of City Manager Sheryl Sculley. At $450,000 plus an annual bonus, she was one of the nation’s highest paid city managers. Voters felt it was too much and approved a charter amendment to limit the salary of future city managers to 10 times that of the city’s lowest-paid full-time employee — which currently would mean $312,000.
Sculley was exempted from the new limit but resigned following the election.
Since the Boeing ruling, over 2,000 records requests have been refused by the AG’s open records division, citing that decision.
In the case of Pharr, “I’d argue against withholding as there is no current competitive process,” said Austin attorney Bill Aleshire. “The notion that there might be [such a process] at some point in the future is not going to mean [the salary] is even relevant five years from now.”
Aleshire, a former judge who has represented numerous clients in public records pursuits, added that the Boeing decision has given public bodies an open field to deny records requests based on alleged competition.
“If the legislature won’t fix it, they can at least make the expenditure of public money always subject to disclosure. No one should be able to have a secret contract with the government,” he said.
A coalition of lawmakers in the last legislative session filed several measures to try and undo the Boeing ruling, but none passed.
This time around, it’s not yet clear which committees would handle government transparency issues. However, state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione are drafting a measure to address the Boeing decision.
In 2017, Pharr prevailed in another records case in which it sought to withhold city contracts. The 2017 letter ruling from the AG’s office in that case cited the Boeing case.
Salaries, though, are considered standard information to be divulged.
“When you can’t find out the city manager’s salary, you don’t have a public information act,” said Joe Larsen, a Houston-based public records attorney.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].