Plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging violations of government transparency laws by the city of San Jose rallied outside the federal courthouse in downtown Thursday with signs that read, “Sam’s Secret Deal,” and “Backroom Deal: Mayor Liccardo, what are you hiding?”
The litigation filed by the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition and the South Bay Labor-aligned Working Partnerships USA stems from the San Jose’s negotiations with mega-corporation Google, which involved Mayor Sam Liccardo and numerous other high-ranking city officials signing non-disclosure agreements.
The lawsuit also alleges that the city violated the California Public Records Act by failing to turn over certain records related to the deal.
At the heart of the litigation is the issue of transparency in the city’s dealings with Google, a $280 billion corporation that itself has historically gone to great lengths to avoid public accountability. This past February, a Washington Post article detailed how Google regularly used secrecy and subterfuge to negotiate huge tax breaks with cities, often out of the public eye. In eight cities, the mega-corporation used NDAs, like the one signed by Liccardo, to fundamentally alter cities with minimal public scrutiny.
Google is preparing to build a massive campus near the Diridon Station in downtown San Jose, where the city sold off a batch of publicly owned parcels last year. Working Partnerships and the First Amendment Coalition are accusing the city of conducting the land deal in secret, robbing the public of a chance to weigh in on the sale.
The city attorney’s office contends otherwise, saying it has maintained transparency throughout the process.
During speeches after the hearing, plaintiffs elaborated their concerns, detailing some 20 closed-door city council meetings with the land sale listed on the agenda, multiple undocumented meetings between the mayor and Google officials, and the deletion of hours of recordings required under California’s sunshine laws. Earlier this week, City Attorney Rick Doyle admitted to the deletion but blamed it on human error.
“We believe that we’ve complied with the Public Records Act in good faith,” Assistant City Attorney Nora Frimann said in a phone call. “We did reasonable searches, and handed over everything we can, with very few exceptions.”
Though there was no ruling Thursday afternoon, the plaintiffs held a press conference after court adjourned, criticizing the city in front of a crowd gathered on the outskirts of St. James Park.
“[The city] did release a significant amount of documents after we filed the lawsuit, so already it is having some degree of success,” First Amendment Coalition Executive Director David Snyder said. “But there’s still a lot more that we don’t know. There are still many records that the city is withholding. The city’s approach has been far too closed off. It took us months just to get responses to our requests for records. Those responses were inadequate, incomplete, and substantially delayed.”
A judge is expected to issue a decision in the case within the next couple of weeks.