Public Records Lawsuit Seeks Transparency at San José City Hall

Mayor’s use of private email to maintain secrecy at issue in lawsuit by San José Spotlight and First Amendment Coalition

San José Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition today filed a lawsuit to bring more transparency to San José City Hall.

The lawsuit to enforce the California Public Records Act takes aim at San José Mayor Sam Liccardo’s use of a private email to do city business in secretive ways. And it cites numerous instances when the city improperly withheld a range of records, blacked out information without adequate justification and failed to conduct thorough searches for records that would shine more light on the city’s interactions with lobbyists and special interests. 

As an example of the city’s flagrant disregard for its transparency obligations, the lawsuit details revelations that Mayor Liccardo directed a constituent to contact him on a personal email account to skirt public records laws. “I’m going to delete this email from my government account,” Liccardo wrote to the constituent, according to documents obtained and published by San José Spotlight.

As San José Spotlight and FAC attorneys tell the court, state law is clear that emails and other communications about city business are public records, whether they are sent from personal or government accounts or devices. In response to a journalist’s request, the city denied the existence of the emails only until it learned San José Spotlight already had copies — and ultimately failed to turn over a deleted one. 

San José, more than other cities in California, is or should be aware of the requirement under the CPRA that public agencies conduct an adequate search of, and produce public records from, non-governmental devices or accounts, such as Liccardo’s personal email account,” the lawsuit states, referring to a 2017 California Supreme Court decision against the city. 

The new lawsuit challenges the city’s response to four public records requests by San José Spotlight or FAC dating back to December 2020. Given evidence of a practice of skirting public records requirements, San José Spotlight and FAC are asking the court to order long-term policy changes.

“Our readers expect us to shine a light on official decision-making at City Hall, and the city’s pattern of denying us access to records has forced us to go to court,” said San José Spotlight co-founder and CEO Ramona Giwargis. “We hope this case will lead to permanent policy changes that will make it possible for San José residents to hold local leaders accountable.” 

“It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to force a city as large and sophisticated as San José to comply with clear California law,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “That’s unfortunate — but we will do what’s necessary to bring these records to public light.”

San José Spotlight and FAC are asking the court to take several actions to ensure transparency and compliance with the law, including ordering Mayor Liccardo to conduct adequate searches of his personal accounts and devices and requiring city officials to turn over records that have been improperly withheld or redacted. Additionally, the lawsuit seeks a court order banning all city employees from exclusively using non-government email accounts for city business, meaning that, at a minimum, government officials would need to copy email messages about city business to their government accounts.

“Without public access to records, there’s no way for the taxpayers and the public to verify that public and elected officials are acting in the best interests of the public, and not the best interests of their friends, cronies and campaign contributors,” said Karl Olson, attorney for San José Spotlight.

San José Spotlight is represented by Karl Olson and Aaron Field of the law firm Cannata, O’Toole, Fickes & Olson. The First Amendment Coalition is represented by David Snyder, the organization’s executive director, and Monica Price, a legal fellow.

The lawsuit was filed in Santa Clara Superior Court. View the full lawsuit and exhibits. Watch a livestream of the announcement here.

About San José Spotlight
San José Spotlight is the city’s first nonprofit news organization dedicated to independent political and business reporting. Our mission is to change the face of local journalism by building a community-supported newsroom that ignites civic engagement, educates citizens and strengthens our democracy.

About FAC

The First Amendment Coalition is a nonprofit public interest organization based in San Rafael, California and working statewide and beyond. It is dedicated to advancing free speech, more open and accountable government, and public participation in civic affairs, including by protecting and promoting the “people’s right to know” about their government so that they may hold it accountable. 

For more information:
Ramona Giwargis
Co-founder and CEO
San José Spotlight 
(408) 206-5327

David Snyder
Executive Director 
First Amendment Coalition
(510) 725-7373