How the City of San Jose Increased Transparency and Accountability
by Thomas D. Norris
Thomas D. Norris is public records manager for the Office of the City Manager, City of San Jose, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The San Jose City Council approved two measures on March 2, 2010, intended to bring greater transparency and accountability to city government operations.
These measures were spurred in part by a public records request that the city received in early 2009 as rumors circulated that, during city council and council committee meetings, city council members were communicating via text messages and e-mails with lobbyists and other interested parties advocating positions and actions on issues under debate. In an effort to determine the accuracy of the rumors, a San Jose Mercury News reporter invoked the California Public Records Act (CPRA) and asked for “All written and/or electronic communications, including memoranda, e-mails, text messages and voice mails, sent or received by elected city officials during any city council meeting or city council committee meeting since December 2008.”
San Jose responded by disclosing nearly 400 e-mail and text messages. Later the reporter asked why the only text messages provided were those transmitted through the city’s e-mail system. City staff replied that communications sent or received on personal communication devices not owned by the city and not captured by the city’s system are not subject to the CPRA.
The mayor and city council subsequently directed city staff to explore and report back on ethics and public records issues related to the use of personally owned communications devices to conduct city business. This led to two local ordinances designed to increase transparency. The first requires members of the city council to disclose text messages and e-mails received during a public meeting from lobbyists and other individuals having an interest in an item being discussed. The second designates all messages regarding city business received on personally owned devices subject to public records access requirements.
One reporter noted that it was likely that San Jose was the first city in the nation to enact such measures, and the city council action garnered national attention.
Transparency Is an Ongoing Theme
The approval of these measures marked the latest result of three years of activity devoted to enhancing open government in San Jose. These efforts came in the wake of numerous news media accounts in 2005 alleging excessive secrecy and undue influence of lobbyists on the part of some of the city’s officials.
The intense media attention prompted then-Council Member (now Mayor) Chuck Reed to propose 34 “Reed Reforms” in January 2006 promoting open government. Two months later, the city council proposed adopting a number of similar reforms and directed the city manager to develop a work plan for implementation, including recommendations on how to engage the public in the process.
The San Jose City Council approved a 15-member Sunshine Reform Task Force (SRTF) in April 2006 to review and provide recommendations regarding the various open government proposals put forward by council members and to propose additional ones to render city government more transparent and accountable. The SRTF comprised representatives from neighborhood associations, the media, labor, business, academia, community-based organizations, city boards and commissions, and one at-large member.
The STRF began its work in June 2006 and developed its recommendations in two phases. Phase I addressed the rules for conducting public meetings and closed sessions and established new requirements for public information and outreach activities. Phase II focused on:
- The ethics and conduct of public officials, employees, volunteers and various partners of city government;
- Access to public records and information;
- The use of technology to further open government; and
- Administration and accountability of the city’s open government program.
The process included a continuous effort to balance the need for increased transparency against the personal privacy rights of individuals. Within the city there was significant concern about the additional time and resources that would be required to meet the new requirements.
The task force made 113 separate recommendations in its July 2008 final report, and the city council adopted 108 either as submitted or with revisions. Staff began implementing the approved measures shortly after their adoption.
Taking Steps to Increase Accountability
In addition to the two measures adopted on use of personal communications devices, San Jose’s recent actions include the following.
- Public meetings must adhere to more stringent guidelines than the open meeting requirements of California state law. Agendas and materials to be discussed at public meetings are posted on the city’s website far in advance of the actual meetings.
- Information regarding lobbyists is posted online, and council members and the members of boards and commissions must disclose communications from lobbyists about any item under discussion.
- Requests for public records are now subject to shorter time frames.
- Members of the public who are denied requested records now have access to an administrative appeals process; previously the only means of appeal was through a lawsuit.
- Online calendars that provide information about appointments from the previous week must be updated each Monday.
- Members of the city council, boards and commissions, city employees, vendors, lobbyists, volunteers and other nongovernmental city partners must verify in writing that they will abide by the city’s Code of Ethics.
- New requirements improve the accountability of not-for-profit organizations that receive city funding.
- A searchable database of council votes is being developed.
- Statistical reports on activities are issued by the Police Department, Fire Department and the Independent Police Auditor on a regular basis.
- Changes and additions to city records retention schedules must be posted online for 30 days before taking effect.
For more information on San Jose’s efforts, visit