San Jose approves hefty pay out for public records lawsuit
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

San Jose officials have approved a $500,000 payout to San José Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition following a public records lawsuit involving former Mayor Sam Liccardo.

The San Jose City Council unanimously signed off on the agreement Tuesday to cover attorneys’ fees and costs for the two organizations, which formally wraps up a more than 20-month legal debate centering on Liccardo’s use of personal text message and email accounts to conduct public business. Under the longstanding California Public Records Act, the prevailing party in such lawsuits is entitled to attorneys’ fees.

“I hope our successful court ruling and settlement sends a clear message to San Jose politicians—no one is above the law and officials like Liccardo will be held accountable for skirting transparency laws,” Ramona Giwargis, co-founder and CEO of San José Spotlight, said. “San Joseans deserve an accountable and transparent government, and I’m proud that we fought for that.”

This news organization and the First Amendment Coalition, which fights for the free press and the public’s right to know, prevailed in a February 2022 lawsuit against San Jose and Liccardo for violating the California Public Records Act.

In July, Santa Clara County Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle ordered the city to turn over hundreds of pages of records he determined were improperly withheld after being requested by this news organization. In August, Kuhnle found the city and Liccardo violated state transparency laws by failing to adequately search his private texts and emails for public records.

In Kuhnle’s August ruling, he wrote Liccardo and San Jose did not adequately prove how the former mayor searched his private accounts for records requested by San José Spotlight. The judge also criticized declarations from Liccardo and the city about the search as being too vague and including “no details.”

In September, the city and Liccardo filed a request to submit more declarations with further details about the search for records, but Kuhnle denied the request, foiling an attempt by San Jose to shift the outcome of the case.

Liccardo told San José Spotlight earlier this month the taxpayer money for the payout should instead be used to further fight the case.

“Our taxpayers would be better served by appealing (Kuhnle’s) refusal to consider evidence than by wasting $500,000 to incentivize lawyers to continue trolling ‘gotcha’ public records lawsuits,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight.

Karl Olson, a First Amendment lawyer representing San José Spotlight in the case, said previously he hopes the case helps make it easier for the public to get records they’re entitled to without having to go to court.

“We think this was a hard fought victory that helped vindicate the public’s right to know,” Olson said.

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter. 

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