Op-ed: Public Records Act enforcement needed more than ever
A rendering of a billboard on The Tech Interactive building in downtown San Jose. Image courtesy of No Digital Billboards San Jose.

    Recently, the San Jose Rules Committee, composed of four councilmembers, unanimously passed a motion intending to make Public Records Act (PRA) requests more restrictive and therefore likely to be unsuccessful. While we doubt any local jurisdiction is legally able to change the state’s PRA regulations, and the committee’s proclamation is consequently only a performative gesture, such shenanigans are moving the city in the wrong direction. We’d like to highlight a prime example: the ongoing billboard fiasco.

    It’s been almost five years since the San Jose City Council repealed the billboard sign ban and gave the green light to solicit bids for new digital billboards on public property around town. Since then, the implementation of this directive to install billboards on downtown public buildings and at San Jose Mineta International Airport has been largely conducted in secret.

    When we became aware of the project in 2020, No Digital Billboards in San Jose asked key leaders in city government for more information, but few details have been shared. This led our public advocacy organization to utilize PRA requests to obtain more substantive information.

    If the city acted with transparency, community engagement and followed its own codified policies and procedures, there would be no need for PRA requests. And if ever there was a proposed project that should be fully open to public review, it’s one that aims to alter the architectural integrity and historic character of landmark public buildings like our theaters, museums and other places important to the community. Yet years into the plan to put digital billboards at five sites downtown, reduced from eight sites in the original proposal, there are more questions than answers.

    We know the city has issued Notice of Intent to Award letters to winning bidder Orange Barrel Media to build and operate the proposed billboards downtown, including at two city-owned parking lots. However, until our PRA request was finally fulfilled last week, all we knew were site locations, as the city withheld detailed proposals from public view for more than two years. Although we now have some information about the proposed electronic billboards, there are still gaps because the city only provided redacted information about each billboard proposal.

    For example, many councilmembers and city staff justify the proposed billboard monstrosities citing they will bring revenue to the city. However, to date we have not received any projections of city revenue after multiple requests. By stumbling on the city’s bidding website for contracts, we were able to obtain copies of the request for proposals, which only contain a vague reference of “the greater of (33-35%) of gross revenue, or the minimum annual guarantee dollar amount proposed by the proposer.”

    Hence our ongoing PRA requests to obtain definitive revenue dollar amounts to be earned by the city.

    Scoring of bidders for billboard proposals. Image courtesy of San Jose.

    It is also inherently absurd that officials are contending they can evaluate and celebrate the aesthetics of digital billboards, while at the same time contending that conventional billboards are blight. In other words, signs advertising beer, soda, fast food and potentially political ads—which the city has no control over—somehow have beauty and can be scored based on aesthetic quality.

    But what are the aesthetic criteria, and who scored the project applicants? Again, we do not know because the city will not tell us. So we are using the PRA process to try to extract the information.

    There are two particularly revealing side notes specific to the city’s billboard initiative for the proposed downtown sites:

    1. All five sites were awarded to a single company—Orange Barrel Media, a company which former Mayor Chuck Reed works for as a lobbyist.
    2. No takedown requirement of existing billboards.


    Last month, the San Jose City Council uncritically approved the billboard project status report shepherded by the Office of Economic Development. At the same time, the council also passed a change to increase the number of conventional billboards that should be taken down if new digitals are approved. The irony is that the increased takedown number only applies to future billboard proposals. The existing downtown billboard project has no takedown requirement, and not one councilmember acknowledged that San Jose’s downtown is exempt from that requirement.

    So, rather than seeking to make it harder to obtain information through PRA requests, the council should be reflecting upon the reasons why the volume of requests has increased. At the risk of stating the obvious, the city should instead focus on becoming more transparent, responsive and accountable to the public it serves.

    The billboard fiasco is a case study in government run amok and why PRA requests are legitimately needed now more than ever.

    Jason Hemp, Les Levitt and John Miller are co-founders of No Digital Billboards in San Jose.

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