San Jose officials not reporting lobbyists meetings
San Jose city officials continue to neglect their recordkeeping responsibilities when meeting with lobbyists. File photo.

San Jose councilmembers are supposed show who they’re meeting with behind closed doors — but their public calendars lack vital details and skirt the spirit of transparency.

San José Spotlight has reported on inadequate lobbyist disclosures for years, but a recent review shows the public is still in the dark due to incomplete and delayed documentation on elected officials’ calendars. Councilmembers blame simple oversights, time constraints and limited staff for outdated calendars. But that violates the city’s sunshine policies, giving the public an incomplete and untimely picture of what elected officials are discussing with people paid to influence policymaking.

In one case, San Jose Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei’s official webpage displayed the wrong public calendar — showing her predecessor Chappie Jones’ lobbyist meetings instead of hers. The city fixed the error after San José Spotlight’s inquiries. Kamei has been in office for nearly a year and a half.

“Thank you for bringing it to our attention. That is not acceptable,” Kamei told San José Spotlight. “Transparency is incredibly important — it’s important to my office, it’s important to my community. This seems to have been a technological issue. But we certainly are aware that we need to be careful.”

San Jose City Hall’s sign-in sheet for people entering meetings and appointments with councilmembers. Photo by Brandon Pho.

The problem ties back to a lack of oversight in San Jose to ensure councilmembers are following their own transparency laws.

“If you don’t enforce these laws, city officials won’t take it seriously,” said Sean McMorris, a program manager at Common Cause California.

Kamei insists that there are processes at the city to ensure officials comply, but she’s looking for improvement.

“We certainly are not perfect and we could always do better,” Kamei told San José Spotlight.

Cities up and down California have adopted sunshine laws to establish trust between the public and elected officials in charge of their tax dollars. San Jose’s sunshine law requires elected officials and top administrators to publish their calendars to show meetings with lobbyists and other special interests.

San Jose’s open government manager checks councilmember calendars to make sure they’re filling them out but doesn’t go line-by-line, city spokesperson Carolina Camarena said.

“We do not regulate council, thus, would not review line items on their calendars,” she told San José Spotlight.

McMorris said the devil is in the details.

“Officials who have to file disclosures will be more likely to hedge their bets and give as little information as possible,” he told  San José Spotlight.

While Mayor Matt Mahan’s calendar generally matches the disclosure reports of lobbyists he meets with, it can be vague. His calendar description of a scheduled March 15 “fast food meeting” left out a key detail: It was with McDonald’s Corporation lobbyists.

That scheduled meeting was more explicitly described in McDonalds lobbyist Jessica Lynam’s disclosure for that day, as fast food franchises opposed workers’ demands for the city to mandate paid time off and a paid day for training on workers rights and benefits.

Mahan declined comment.

Other councilmembers don’t report some meetings at all.

Councilmember David Cohen on March 13 scheduled a meeting with lobbyist Jim Cunneen, who reported in his disclosure that the meeting was to “advocate against policies that would adversely affect small business fast food franchisee owners.” Yet Cohen’s public calendar didn’t disclose any such meeting that day – only a rundown of the agenda for an upcoming committee meeting.

Cohen attributed the empty calendar date to limited staff and the manual work requirements of updating the calendar, putting his office’s disclosures weeks behind.

“Transparency and accountability are very important,” Cohen told  San José Spotlight. “Unfortunately the tools we use are rudimentary and require manually copying the working calendar to the public calendar. Our office is usually about four to six weeks behind in updating the public calendar because of the limited staff we have for the volume of work we do for the public. Hopefully someday we will have a more automated system that will make our reporting more efficient.”

Cohen isn’t the only politician with a lagging calendar.

Councilmember Peter Ortiz’s calendar didn’t show his April 8 scheduled meeting with Jean Cohen of the South Bay Labor Council. She reported the meeting in her lobbyist disclosures, which focused on the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority bond measure that promises to generate $10 billion to $20 billion for affordable housing, if passed by voters in November.

And although Ortiz’s calendar disclosed other meetings with Cohen in March, his calendar missed a scheduled meeting on Feb. 23, which she described as pertaining to “housing, budget and fast food.”

“Council schedules are highly impacted and sometimes staff falls behind, but that is never an excuse for lack of transparency,” Ortiz told  San José Spotlight. “I’ve directed for sacred time to ensure that my compliance calendar is kept up to date, thus ensuring full disclosure.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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