A new trove of Mayor Sam Liccardo’s private emails released by San Jose raises more questions about the city’s practice of improperly withholding public records.
The city last week released 132 pages of previously withheld documents, prompted by a lawsuit by San José Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition. The emails detail Liccardo’s conversations with city officials and consultants on issues like funding for homelessness projects, the airport connector and gun control.
Perhaps the most revealing email is a thread in which Liccardo expresses frustration about a lack of accountability over nonprofits who receive city funding and calls out two council colleagues for acting “pretty inappropriate” by directing which nonprofits should receive money.
The newly-released emails follow Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Julie Emede’s decision in August ordering the city to provide a list of the documents it’s withholding, though the list doesn’t include names, addressees or topics of discussion. The city previously refused to tell San José Spotlight how many records it has been withholding.
The city produced a list showing more than 300 withheld records last month before releasing the new emails.
David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the latest release of emails shows a troubling pattern in the city.
“The fact that a whole batch of emails—132 pages worth—were only disclosed several months after we filed suit is very disturbing,” Loy told San José Spotlight. “It makes you wonder what else have they not produced that we should have. We just don’t have confidence there’s been proper searches or proper response to our records requests.”
After reviewing the emails, San José Spotlight’s attorney Karl Olson questioned the city’s reasoning to withhold them. He said the list provided by the city is inefficient.
“None of (these are) documents they should have withheld in the first place,” Olson said. “Most public officials don’t want to release anything that might make them look bad, but that’s not the law.”
San Jose has denied all claims in the lawsuit.
The new batch of emails sent and received from Liccardo’s personal Gmail account reveal his frustration with city officials and his council colleagues over different issues. Last January, Liccardo emailed then-City Manager David Sykes, Deputy City Manager Angel Rios and his staff to air concerns about the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force—specifically about the lack of results from the city’s nonprofit partners.
“I’ve been concerned/frustrated over the last several years that we don’t seem to have good performance/outcome metrics to hold our non-profit providers accountable,” Liccardo said in the email. “I don’t doubt that there are nonprofits that are underperforming if we’re not really clearly assessing them, and I hear anecdotal information suggesting that some organizations are simply mailing it in, and assuming that their longstanding relationships with the city will enable them to keep their contracts and secure renewals.”
He also singled out Councilmembers Maya Esparza and Magdalena Carrasco for reportedly directing city officials on which organizations should get funding.
“I’ve also heard from (staff) that Maya and Magdalena have been pretty inappropriate at these meetings, and pretty directive about where they’d like to see money go and who should benefit,” he said.
Liccardo told San José Spotlight on Friday the city manager’s office has since worked out a plan to address the accountability issue.
“(The) plan will explicitly incorporate OKRs (objectives with key results) that will focus more attention on the outcomes that we want to achieve, (such as) helping students to stay in school, reducing recidivism, and improving graduation rates. That plan will come to council in a few weeks,” Liccardo said.
The mayor added that he doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of how the councilmembers directed where city funding should go.
“I don’t recall any details about those conversations other than that a couple of sources indicated it was a concern,” he said. “We have had a strong tradition of keeping the mayor and councilmembers out of decisions that should be made through a competitive and public request for proposals to ensure fairness and the effective use of taxpayer dollars.”
Esparza reacted to Liccardo’s criticism by saying she’s worked to secure more funding to serve high-risk and gang-involved youth.
“I am focused on creating an environment that is safe for our neighborhoods and families,” Esparza told San José Spotlight.
Carrasco didn’t respond to inquiries about the mayor’s comment.
Another email thread shows Liccardo balked at the estimated cost of $1 million for the airport connector project, which aims to establish a transit link between Mineta San Jose International Airport and Diridon Station.
“That seems excessive, but I guess I’m never surprised anymore…” Liccardo said in a May 2021 email.
A deeper look
Several emails reveal Liccardo’s push to raise money for city projects and housing for the homeless. In one thread, Liccardo asks staff to research and compile a list of wealthy donors to solicit. One email shows Liccardo reaching out to philanthropist John Sobrato for his financial support of a housing project for homeless individuals in District 10.
“We’ve settled on a city-owned parcel that we think is promising, and we’d like to talk further,” Liccardo said in a June email. He also introduced Councilmember Matt Mahan, who represents the area and is a San Jose mayoral candidate. “Small world department, in case you didn’t know already: Matt, of course, is the husband of Silvia, our new Cristo Rey president, and he’s also Ed Thrift’s nephew.”
San José Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition in February sued the city and Liccardo after this news organization revealed how the mayor almost exclusively uses his private Gmail for city business, deleted emails from his public account, and how the city improperly withheld public records, redacted information without adequate reasoning and failed to conduct thorough searches for records. The lawsuit also alleges the city routinely skirts public records law—preventing the public from being able to scrutinize city officials’ interactions with lobbyists and special interests.
The next court hearing on the case is Nov. 10, where San José Spotlight will demand a more detailed log of all withheld records. The judge will also consider whether Liccardo will be deposed on his private email use.
“We’re still in the dark,” Olson said, noting he wants to see information such as the authors, the recipients or the subject matters of the emails. “And we’re still certainly going to press for a privilege log.”