From the CEO: San Jose turns a blind eye to transparency
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo speaks during an interview with San José Spotlight on Dec. 14, 2022. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    More than a year ago, San José Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition sued San Jose and its former mayor for blatant violations of public records laws.

    A quick refresher: former Mayor Sam Liccardo deleted a government email and persuaded a resident to contact his private account to skirt disclosure. The city claimed no emails from that thread existed—until we showed them copies we had. The deleted record never turned up from the city. We learned that Liccardo almost exclusively used his personal Gmail for city business. City officials improperly withheld or heavily blacked out records that they later released only because of our lawsuit. Hundreds of withheld emails pertained to things you deserve to know about, such as Google’s massive development, housing plans for the homeless and the city’s budget.

    And some emails—such as last-minute lobbying attempts by Liccardo’s pal Carl Guardino to exempt his company from a natural gas ban—still haven’t surfaced. We’ve asked for them multiple times over the past several years.

    Yet the city is claiming in its latest court filing that “no actual controversy exists”—nothing to see here—over the issue of using private accounts or retaining records because Liccardo is out of office, and our new mayor and some of his colleagues promised not to delete public records, refrain from using private accounts for city business or copy a government server if they do.

    The city seems to think a campaign promise is good enough. As if no politician ever breaks those.

    It’s true that Mayor Matt Mahan and four new councilmembers—Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei, Bien Doan, Omar Torres and Peter Ortiz—answered “yes”  to the following questions asked by San José Spotlight last July, four months before the November election:

    Would you commit to not deleting your emails for at least two years?

    Would you commit to not using a private email to conduct public business?

    If you do use a private account, would you commit to copying a government server, as encouraged by the California Supreme Court?

    But when San José Spotlight recently asked the court to require city officials to “use or copy” a government server when communicating about public business—the same thing the mayor and councilmembers said yes to for our article in July—the city opposed us in court.

    With Liccardo gone, the city seems to imply the violations have stopped and no policy changes are needed. It’s claiming everyone left at City Hall is going to follow the rules.

    But most elected officials still use their personal devices to text about city business—just like Liccardo did. In fact, they usually communicate with reporters that way.

    And Mahan’s current chief of staff, Jim Reed, who served as Liccardo’s chief for eight years, is deeply involved with the past behavior. Mahan hired nearly a dozen senior officials who worked for his predecessor, including Reed.

    As we dug into Liccardo’s rampant use of private email and texts last year, we spoke to four of his former employees on condition of anonymity. These employees worked under Reed and the former mayor for years, and have seen firsthand how business is conducted on the top floor of City Hall.

    Two of them said they were encouraged to purge and delete public emails, text messages and call logs at least once a week—and the office even coined a term for it: “Email hygiene.”

    To practice “good email hygiene,” these Liccardo staffers were urged to regularly delete public records—in direct violation of the city’s own policy to retain important communications for at least two years. Two of the ex-employees said Reed, along with other top administrators, encouraged this practice. So, how can San Jose’s attorneys expect anyone to follow the rules when the same people who violated them still work in top leadership positions? Or when the current council still uses private devices and accounts to conduct public business?

    The city’s argument falls flat and San Jose residents deserve an honest, transparent and effective government. We’ll continue to fight for it.

    Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

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