Jain: California Public Records Act weaponized to harass elected officials
A sign points to Santa Clara's City Council Chambers from City Hall in this file photo.

I write today to highlight an example of egregious abuse of the California Public Records Act (CPRA).

Since being elected in November 2020, I have received more than 69 Public Records Act (PRA) requests, including 49 from just one individual who has stated in emails that he is “fond of” Mayor Lisa Gillmor—and it’s widely known there is a bitter divide on the Santa Clara City Council with me opposite Gillmor. On April 20 alone, I received seven PRAs from this individual, in addition to 16 in a 10-day period in March.

Each PRA can take hours to sort through thousands of emails and text messages by each elected official, and this typically has to happen within 10 days. These messages are then reviewed by city staff and legal experts, costing the public agency valuable time and money that can better be spent providing services to our residents.

It takes seconds for this person to fire off a poorly composed records request such as “Texts and emails to and from anthony becker from suds jain or kevin park or rahul chandhok or abel cardona regarding robert haugh or james rowen or lisa gillmor from december 19 2021 to April 19, 2022,” as well as “All emails and texts to and from Suds Jain, or Kevin Park, or Anthony Becker to Cindy Chavez from January 1, 2022 to April 20, 2022.”

I feel these PRAs are politically motivated and don’t seem to be intended to reveal financial misdeeds nor illegal activities, but rather to catch me making an embarrassing statement. I have seen evidence of this in emails with excerpts of text messages sent to the press, always copying Gillmor, that ridicule me, the target of the PRAs.

What’s to stop this one person, who certainly isn’t a journalist and doesn’t even live in Santa Clara, from firing off hundreds of record requests each week to every elected and employee in the county? The city attorney says there is nothing I can do but comply, even though this person used to have a blog he had to shut down when he started libeling a local attorney. Is this a good use of taxpayer money?

Interestingly, compliance in Santa Clara, and probably elsewhere, is extremely variable and, it seems, highly dependent on an official’s intentions to comply. There is essentially nothing stopping elected officials from deleting any emails and texts before PRAs are received. By the way, the city has a policy that councilmembers must retain records for two years, but then IT sets up the computers to automatically delete all emails older than 90 days unless manually archived.

When a PRA arrives, it is up to the target (me) of the PRA to release emails, texts, notes and other documents to staff. Those are then reviewed and sections are possibly redacted by the city’s attorneys. Searching emails and texts is very time consuming. It seems to me there should be some software provided by the city to make identifying emails and texts more automated, but I have asked and the city doesn’t have anything.

I reviewed responses to a very broad public records request submitted on March 11 asking for communications to and from Gillmor and Councilmember Kathy Watanabe from and to several people. I was surprised there was not a single text message released in all of the responses by April 27. I was also surprised to see zero emails were ever sent by Gillmor or Watanabe—there were emails sent to them in the archive.

In contrast, I submitted to our city attorney 80 MB of emails and texts for a single PRA and 7.2 MB of emails and texts for another PRA.

I am, by no means, asking that the CPRA be eliminated or even gutted because transparency is critical to the functioning of a healthy democracy and it also serves to substantially reduce corruption.

Good elected officials are leaving public office due to harassment and even threats to their families. A fellow Santa Clara councilmember recently received a threatening email about an upcoming vote which caused the councilmember to have the police make a visit. The Silicon Valley Leadership Group just printed a list of 26 members of the California Legislature who have quit or are not running for reelection in 2022. And that list does not even include people who are termed out.

While people can be punished for physical threats, it seems there is no redress from harassment through the CPRA. I am just asking for some guardrails against serial abuse of this essential law so I, and other electeds, can spend more time doing the people’s business.

Suds Jain is a Santa Clara councilmember elected in November 2020.

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