San Jose mayor supports public records reform.

San Jose mayor supports public records reform
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan outside City Hall on Jan. 2, 2023. Photo by Joseph Geha.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan agrees with his predecessor that some public records requests burden the city, but says City Hall shouldn’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 state’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 city’s document retention policies, implement new technologies and pursue legislative advocacy to stop “abuse†of the state’s transparency laws.

Several free speech lawyers and organizations have said some of Liccardo’s proposals are troubling and could limit the public’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 Liccardo’s push to make the media narrow records requests is not something the city could regulate.

“It’s true that expansive and repeated (Public Records Act) requests are taxing our city,†Mahan told San José Spotlight. “But at the end of the day, I think we’ve got to prioritize that transparency. We have a responsibility to be open and transparent, and we should be very open to scrutiny from press and the public.â€

As a mayoral candidate last year, Mahan committed to being transparent by not using his private email account to conduct city business—a practice employed by his predecessor.

“I’m open to solutions as well, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to the city attorney for her recommendations,†Mahan said. “My 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 attorney’s office told San José 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.

“It’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),†Cohen told San José Spotlight. “We 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 doesn’t address the growing workloads from records requests.

“Those who make these requests have every right to ask for them, but they should also make sure they’re asking for the most important information in a clear and concise way that doesn’t overly burden staff,†he said.

According to Liccardo, the city’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.

Liccardo’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 public’s access to the inner workings of City Hall. The city cannot dictate what records—and how many—the public and the media can request through the state’s Public Records Act, they said. Olson is representing San José Spotlight in a lawsuit against Liccardo and the city.

Councilmember Dev Davis said she’d need to see recommendations from the city attorney’s office before she could comment. Other councilmembers either didn’t respond to inquiries about Liccardo’s proposals or declined to comment.

Liccardo’s push to reform the public records process comes as San Jose 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 José Spotlight revealed how the city repeatedly disregarded the law, 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 city has denied the claims.

Original by Tran Nguyen for San Jose Spotlight