A new lawsuit filed against San Jose claims city officials signed illegal non-disclosure contracts at Google’s behest to secure a $67 million land deal with the advertising giant.
The confidentiality agreements applied to Mayor Sam Liccardo and at least 17 other city employees and electeds, according to the petition submitted to the Santa Clara County Superior Court on Tuesday by the First Amendment Coalition and Working Partnerships USA. Google reportedly asked for the privacy pledges last year during early talks with the city about building a massive transit village by the SAP Center and Diridon train station.
Google’s interest in central San Jose fueled investment in the area, leading to a steep uptick in real estate prices. The company’s downtown buying spree, which this year exceeded $200 million in combined purchases, also stirred anxieties among residents about rent hikes, gentrification and displacement, and was met with resistance from advocacy groups hoping to secure concessions from the multibillion-dollar corporation for union laborers and contractors.
According to the lawsuit, NDAs violate the city’s municipal code by turning public records into private ones. They also allegedly run afoul of state law that prevents local governments from letting private parties decide what to disclose publicly.
“This petition seeks to bring sunlight into the process to enable the public to better evaluate the project’s impacts on traffic, affordable housing, displacement and gentrification by obtaining public records shedding light upon what the city and Google did,” the plaintiffs state in their claim.
The lawsuit comes after the city allegedly disregarded the California Public Records Act by failing to provide NDAs, email correspondence and other related documents requested by FAC and Working Partnerships.
“The public is entitled to know what elected leaders are doing and saying in negotiations with corporations doing business with the government—especially where those companies are as large and powerful as Google,” FAC Executive Director David Snyder said in a news release Tuesday. “NDAs do not and cannot override elected leaders’ obligations to produce records under public records laws.”
Both nonprofits also say the city potentially skirted the Brown Act, a 65-year-old law that governs public meetings. “The City Council’s Brown Act violations arise out of numerous closed session meetings regarding the potential acquisition by Google of city-owned property in the Diridon Station area, the development of the properties and adjacent parcels,” the FAC wrote in a letter sent to city officials alongside the legal complaint.
City Attorney Rick Doyle downplayed both claims. NDAs are not only legal, they’re increasingly routine, he said. Although, he acknowledged that they’re less common in the public sector and could only name two other companies—Facebook and Adobe Systems—that asked San Jose city officials to sign them. As to the Brown Act allegations, Doyle said the law allows closed-door talks about real estate deals, which is what the council was discussing during the meetings cited in the FAC’s cease-and-desist letter.
“The NDAs are to keep things confidential until we’re ready to have a public discussion,” Doyle said. Once the city entered into its exclusive negotiating agreement with Google in summer of 2017, he added, the confidentiality agreements were no longer in effect.
“I think that’s the important thing here,” Doyle went on. “Everything’s public now. ... This is old news, from my standpoint. I don’t mean to sound trite, but once the exclusive negotiating deal was approved, there was no more confidentiality.”
Snyder claims otherwise. Through the lawsuit, he’s seeking a court order to obtain documents linked to Google’s planned purchase of city-owned land before it comes up for discussion at the Dec. 4 City Council meeting. The memo for that meeting, which includes a draft agreement between the city and Google, becomes public on Friday.
“The question we’re trying to get to the bottom of here is: what are they hiding?” Working Partnerships Executive Director Maria Noel Fernandez said. “What details about this new tech campus would be so toxic for the project that the city and Google have gone to such great lengths to prevent them from coming out? The public has a right to know what’s going on and deserve better than a backroom deal.”