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Q&A with Ramona Giwargis, San Jose Spotlight co-founder and CEO


PUBLISHED OCT 12, 2022 3:24 P.M.
Ramona Giwargis

Ramona Giwargis

Photo by Daniel Garcia

By ALLYSON ALEKSEY

Editor’s Note: For background on the lawsuit San Jose Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition have filed, read ‘City of San Jose and Mayor Sam Liccardo Still Battling Sunshine Lawsuit.’

And: On Monday, Oct. 10, four days after this interview took place, Spotlight published an article headlined ‘San Jose releases withheld Liccardo emails.’

What are your thoughts on the litigation process since filing the suit eight months ago?

I'm grateful for the support of the First Amendment Coalition and our attorney, Karl Olson, who was part of the legal team that challenged San Jose's transparency policies five years ago all the way up to the California Supreme Court. The court decided communications sent or received on private accounts or devices are public records if they deal with the public's business—yet San Jose continues to flout the law by withholding and excessively redacting documents from Mayor Liccardo's personal Gmail account dealing with city matters.

On Aug. 24 Judge Julie Emede ordered the city to produce a list including details of all the withheld documents; the list was due to the court within 30 days, the Spotlight reported. Did the city produce a list, and if so, when?

While the judge's order was a step in the right direction, it is not nearly enough. It does not satisfy us because the "privilege log" the city produced doesn't include authors, addressees and subject matters. How can San Joseans understand what their mayor and government officials are doing if the city hides this critical information? We are still in the dark and the public deserves the full picture.

The list was produced by the city; what is your perception of those documents? Does it satisfy your requests?

The list is missing vital information such as the authors, addressees and subject matters, and we need those key components of a privilege log. How can we fully understand the nature of the withheld documents without this critical information? This list does not satisfy our requests and we'll continue to fight for more transparency and accountability from San Jose City Hall. 

What is considered "excessive delay" under the CPRA, in this case specifically? 

When we asked for copies of communications sent to the mayor and council members by a lobbyist named Carl Guardino—which should've been produced under a previous CPRA—the city granted itself six extensions for nine months. Ultimately, it never produced those missing documents. In another example, it took the city a year to produce emails responsive to a previous records request—and they only turned up under a separate, unrelated CPRA. 

In your professional opinion, what are the negative implications for news outlets and reporters when an elected official uses a private email rather than a government email?

The usage of private email to conduct public business makes it difficult for reporters—and residents—to know what documents exist and to hold their government officials accountable for releasing those records. It is difficult for agencies to search private accounts and devices in response to records requests if those messages aren't copied on government servers. In short, we don't know what exists and it's difficult for a neutral third party to search for records.

In a Feb. 5 Podlight episode you said a hopeful outcome of this case would be for city officials to go back and do a thorough search of Mayor Liccardo's private accounts and turn over records that should be public. Will the Spotlight continue to pursue this after Liccardo terms out?

Yes, that is our goal. We named Mayor Liccardo in the lawsuit in both his professional and personal capacity, so that we may continue our fight for sunshine after he leaves San Jose City Hall and reportedly pursues the next step in his political career.

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