SAN JOSE (CN) — Five years after the California Supreme Court held that city officials can’t use personal email accounts to evade government transparency laws, a new lawsuit claims San José is flagrantly violating the state's public records access laws.
After learning Mayor Sam Liccardo was using his personal email account to conduct city business, the nonprofit news outlet San José Spotlight requested all public records residing in the mayor’s Gmail account, social media accounts, texts and messaging apps from January through July 2021.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Santa Clara County Superior Court, Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition (FAC) claim the city turned over some records but illegally refused to release others, redacted text from records without explanation and failed to provide a log listing each withheld record and why it is exempt from disclosure.
“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.”
The lawsuit suggests the city has little excuse for failing to comply with the California Public Records Act (CPRA), given its direct involvement with and knowledge of a 2017 California Supreme Court ruling that held the city cannot withhold government officials’ private emails and texts that discuss public issues.
“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, nongovernmental devices or accounts, such as Liccardo’s personal email account,” the lawsuit states.
San José Spotlight co-founder and CEO Ramona Giwargis said the news outlet’s readers expect it to shine a light on official decision-making at City Hall and that San José has a pattern of denying it access to public records.
“We hope this case will lead to permanent policy changes that will make it possible for San José residents to hold local leaders accountable,” Giwargis said in a statement.
According to the complaint, Spotlight first learned of San José’s practice of withholding private emails when it requested records of all communications between Mayor Liccardo and homeless advocate Scott Largent this past June.
The city stated that it had no responsive records in its possession, but the Spotlight independently obtained records of conversations between Liccardo and Largent, including an email from Nov. 19, 2020, in which Largent said he was “concerned” his emails to the mayor could be obtained through public records requests, which “can make my life very difficult.”
In an email sent on Jan. 21, 2021, Liccardo wrote, “Please communicate with me at the following email: [redacted]. Please do not share the email address. I’m going to delete this email from my government account.”
The lawsuit follows recent revelations that the San Francisco Mayor’s Office has been deleting text messages and emails related to city business and then telling journalists the requested records don't exist.
Spotlight and FAC seek a court order forcing San José to conduct “adequate searches” for all the requested records of the mayor’s personal accounts and devices and to make the city turn over those communications.
They’re also asking the court to ban city employees from exclusively using nongovernment email accounts for city business and require them to, at a minimum, copy email messages discussing public 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.
Mayor Liccardo’s office and the San José City Attorney’s Office did not immediately return emails requesting comment Thursday.