Nonprofit Puts the Spotlight on San Jose Mayor After Violation of CPRA

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March 21, 2022

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(SAN JOSE, Calif.) — The San Jose Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition are suing San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo after he and his staff denied the news outlet access to public records. 

The Spotlight, a nonprofit, and the First Amendment Coalition filed the suit on Feb. 3, 2022, at the Santa Clara County Superior Court. The Spotlight pointed to California’s Transparency laws and California Public Records Act as their argument in their press release.

The Spotlight argued that Liccardo has been using private emails to conduct city business and that the city was not providing those emails in the public records requests. 

Ramona Giwirgis, co-founder and CEO of The Spotlight, said in a Zoom interview that this was a year-long fight with the city.  

“I encourage all of my reporters and all of my team to just keep trying. We wanted to be cooperative with the city and we wanted to try to follow the procedures and guidelines around the CPRA,” Giwirgis said. “[The lawsuit] wasn’t our first method to try and get these records, it wasn’t our first remedy, we tried to work with the city directly.”

In response to the announcement, Liccardo issued a statement on his Medium page on Feb. 5, 2022, in which he claimed The Spotlight neglected to report that he conducted business on his private account to protect a citizen and his family’s “safety.” 

He also said that his staff had cooperated with The Spotlight and only “missed” two of the emails that were requested. 

Giwirgis countered that it wasn’t just two emails, but more, and they knew they weren’t getting all the records that they requested because they had copies of those emails. 

“In some cases, they would delay excessively and in some cases, they would give us copies that were completely blacked out or redacted and they couldn’t justify why they were doing that,” Giwirigis said. 

Liccardo also accused The Spotlight of issuing the lawsuit as “clickbait” for a story.

“Most other media outlets ignored their first story, for an obvious reason: when they shared all of the facts, it was obvious that the City followed the law to protect the safety of a resident,” Liccardo wrote in the Medium post. “It wasn’t newsworthy.”

Giwirgis said Liccardo did not address the use of private emails in his response, which was the heart of the lawsuit. She said he also never copied his government email address in public correspondence, which was a recommendation of the California Supreme Court in a 2017 lawsuit

Liccardo was on the city council when the California Supreme Court issued that ruling. 

“I know he was trying to discredit us by calling us a blog and some of these other kinds of what he believes are derogatory remarks, I think that kind of messaging is dangerous because it is attacking the press, it’s attacking free speech,” Giwirgis said.

This is the first lawsuit that The Spotlight has participated in since its founding in January 2019. 

“We created a legal defense fund, so the San Jose Spotlight is funding the lawsuit,” Giwirgis said. “We have skin in the game, we believe in this that much that we are putting our money forward into this litigation.”

Karl Olson, the lawyer for San Jose Spotlight who also worked on the 2017 lawsuit, expressed his disappointment at a Feb. 3, 2022, press conference addressing The Spotlight’s lawsuit with the City of San Jose and called Liccardo a repeat offender. 

“Mayor Liccardo seems determined to ignore or defy the Supreme Court’s ruling,” Olson said during the conference. “He apparently conducts nearly all of his city business on his private phone, apparently because it’s easier to cut backroom deals with his friends, lobbyists, and corporate cronies that way. This makes him a repeat offender.”

The community showed its support for the news organization by responding to newsletters that The Spotlight sent out to its members announcing the lawsuit.

“I honestly didn’t know what the reaction would be [in the community] because this is the first time we have done anything like this, and the day we announced the lawsuit, we got so many responses from our newsletter saying ‘go get ‘em,’” Giwirgis said. “We even had a couple of residents ask how they could join the litigation, kind of turning into ‘People v. the City of San Jose.’”

The ultimate goal is not just to sue for the records that have been kept from the public, but to hold the City of San Jose accountable. 

“It’s about government transparency,” Giwirgis said.

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