San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan agrees with his predecessor that some public records requests burden the city, but says City Hall shouldnâ€™t limit what journalists ask for.
The newly-elected mayor also wants to make technology part of the solution to reduce the workload and costs of providing records.
San Jose is in the process of reviewing, and potentially reforming, how the city complies with the stateâ€™s public records law. The plan came from former Mayor Sam Liccardo, whose legacy as a councilmember and mayor was plagued by transparency-related lawsuits and violations.
Citing the need to cut down costs, reduce delays and avoid errors, Liccardo wanted the city to revise its process for responding to public records requests, including asking the media to limit records requests. He also wanted San Jose to explore changes to the cityâ€™s document retention policies, implement new technologies and pursue legislative advocacy to stop â€œabuseâ€ of the stateâ€™s transparency laws.
Several free speech lawyers and organizations have said some of Liccardoâ€™s proposals are troubling and could limit the publicâ€™s access to how city officials conduct city business.
Mahan said he agrees some changes need to happen to make the process more efficient, but said Liccardoâ€™s push to make the media narrow records requests is not something the city could regulate.
â€œItâ€™s true that expansive and repeated (Public Records Act) requests are taxing our city,â€ Mahan told San JosÃ© Spotlight. â€œBut at the end of the day, I think weâ€™ve got to prioritize that transparency.Â We have a responsibility to be open and transparent, and we should be very open to scrutiny from press and the public.â€
â€œIâ€™m open to solutions as well, but I havenâ€™t had a chance to talk to the city attorney for her recommendations,â€ Mahan said. â€œMy sense is that technology is probably our best option, because (responding to public records requests) is a real burden, and it does affect our ability to do important work.â€
The city attorneyâ€™s office told San JosÃ© Spotlight it will review local rules and report back to the San Jose City Council on potential changes during the budget season.
Councilmember David Cohen said his office strives to be as open as possible, but he understands why Liccardo proposed such reforms.
â€œItâ€™s very time consuming for our staff to comb through thousands and thousands of emails to try to find ones that specifically address (the requests),â€ Cohen told San JosÃ© Spotlight. â€œWe also have to take time away from the work we do on a daily basis when we get one of these requests.â€
Cohen said city officials will continue to get pulled away from their work if the city doesnâ€™t address the growing workloads from records requests.
â€œThose who make these requests have every right to ask for them, but they should also make sure theyâ€™re asking for the most important information in a clear and concise way that doesnâ€™t overly burden staff,â€ he said.
According to Liccardo, the cityâ€™s costs to provide public records have doubled to $2 million annually in the last three years. The San Jose Police Department also assigned 36 workers to fulfill a single records request related to police misconduct, he said.
Liccardoâ€™s proposals have sparked concerns from First Amendment Coalition, California News Publishers Association and renowned free speech lawyer Karl Olson, who said the plan could curtail the publicâ€™s access to the inner workings of City Hall. The city cannot dictate what recordsâ€”and how manyâ€”the public and the media can request through the stateâ€™s Public Records Act, they said. Olson is representing San JosÃ© Spotlight in a lawsuit against Liccardo and the city.
Councilmember Dev Davis said sheâ€™d need to see recommendations from the city attorneyâ€™s office before she could comment. Other councilmembers either didnâ€™t respond to inquiries about Liccardoâ€™s proposals or declined to comment.
Liccardoâ€™s push to reform the public records process comes asÂ San JoseÂ and the ex-mayor continue to fight a lawsuit from this news organization and the First Amendment Coalition over improperly withholding emails. In 2021, San JosÃ© Spotlight revealed how the city repeatedlyÂ disregarded the law, redacted information without adequate reasoning and failed to conduct thorough searches for records. The lawsuit also alleges the city routinelyÂ skirts public records lawâ€”preventing the public from being able to scrutinizeÂ city officialsâ€™ interactions with lobbyists and special interests.Â The city has denied theÂ claims.
Original by Tran Nguyen for San Jose Spotlight