San Jose sued over public records—again
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

    San Jose consistently breaks state law by “perpetually extending its own deadline” for responding to public records requests, a complaint filed against the city alleges.

    Stacey Brown, a former employee of Mayor Matt Mahan’s office, is suing San Jose, claiming the city has taken months to respond to a records request she filed in March, and asserting the city makes a habit of dragging its feet when it receives records requests.

    The complaint, filed today in Santa Clara County Superior Court, is the latest attack on San Jose over its compliance with the California Public Records Act—which has landed the city and its top officials in hot water several times in recent years.

    San José Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition have an active lawsuit against San Jose and its former Mayor Sam Liccardo alleging the city has skirted records law by failing to come clean about how frequently and to what extent Liccardo used personal phone and email accounts to handle city business.

    Brown is being represented by Jim McManis, an attorney who has previously beaten San Jose in a landmark public records act case at the California Supreme Court, among other cases.

    “This is all about the city of San Jose’s disgraceful practice of ignoring public records act requests. It goes on for months after months,” McManis told San José Spotlight. “This isn’t the first case where we have had this, and we decided enough is enough.”

    The complaint says Brown filed a public records request with the city on March 20 with a “narrowly tailored” scope, and alleges the city granted itself nine extensions in handling it so far.

    The city has produced two documents in that time, and has yet to fully respond after 129 days have passed, the suit said.

    Under state law, public agencies are “obligated to provide a response within 10 days” that indicate whether records being sought exist and when they will be made available to the requester, and if the city plans to withhold some records due to privacy rules or other exemptions, the suit said.

    The agencies are also allowed to invoke a single 14-day extension for “unusual circumstances,” but the suit claims San Jose has abused its discretion of a 24-day window to respond.

    City Attorney Nora Frimann did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    Jim Reed, Mahan’s chief of staff, told San José Spotlight transparency is critical for government to be accountable.

    “It’s a priority for our office to respond to the dozens of public record requests we regularly receive, as well as review the thousands of documents required to fulfill those requests,” Reed said. “By design, we’re devoting significant time during the July recess to identifying, collecting, reviewing and producing the relevant PRA writings, and expect to fully comply with this request very soon.”

    ‘We’re not going to tolerate this’

    McManis said the city has not provided any justification for its delays, offering only “mumbo jumbo” in letters that grant the city more time. He said Brown’s request for records was focused on a specific group of city employees and officials, and sought records during a one-month time period, so it should’ve been fulfilled easily.

    “It wasn’t like years of records covering a vast number of subjects. They know exactly what we’re looking for, and they’re just playing hide the ball,” McManis said. “We’re not going to tolerate this any longer.”

    The suit asks the court to mandate San Jose fully respond to Brown’s request with no further delay, to declare the city’s “practice of self-granting serial extensions” violates state law and to issue an injunction stopping the city from similarly delaying other records request responses.

    San Jose’s “serial extension practice is a widespread policy affecting nearly every public records request received by the city,” the suit said, resulting in the public being denied access to records it is entitled to review to ensure the public’s business is being handled with integrity.

    San José Spotlight’s lawsuit against the city has also called out San Jose’s apparent practice of extending deadlines for records request responses.

    “The city unilaterally granted itself six extensions to search for records over the course of nine months before ultimately ‘closing’ the request without having produced any of the records referenced,” the San José Spotlight lawsuit said.

    Brown believes San Jose “will persist in repeatedly extending its deadlines without decisive action” from the court, her suit said.

    In addition to limiting the public’s access to records, McManis said when the city fights against public records lawsuits and loses, it often has to pay attorneys’ fees, costing the city millions.

    “This is just not right,” McManis said of the city’s alleged delays with public records requests. “Someone’s got to put a stop to it and I intend to do that.”

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

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