Silicon Valley Business Journal: Google campus negotiations prompt advocacy groups to sue San Jose

By Janice Bitters 
November 13, 2018

The city of San Jose is facing a lawsuit filed Tuesday from two community and transparency advocacy groups aiming to shake loose more information about elected officials’ negotiations with search giant Google to buy a swath of publicly owned land.

Google, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., and the city have spent the past 17 months formally negotiating the details around the sale of public lands in San Jose for a potential massive new mixed-use tech campus that could reach 8 million square feet in size and bring up to 20,000 Google employees to the area around Diridon Station.

On Friday, many of the details of the agreement around the sale are slated to become public ahead of a Dec. 4 vote by the City Council to sell about 20 acres of publicly owned land to Google.

But some local groups claim the city hasn’t been transparent through the process, pointing to a set of closed-door meetings over the past year and non-disclosure agreements multiple city officials signed ahead of the June 9, 2017, public announcement that Mountain View-based Google was eyeing downtown San Jose for its next big Bay Area expansion.

“Working Partnerships USA and the First Amendment Coalition has brought this lawsuit against the city of San Jose to bring sunlight into the process so that we the public know the details of what Google and Mayor [Sam] Liccardo have pushed so hard to hide,” Maria Noel Fernandez, deputy executive director for Working Partnerships USA, said at a press conference about the lawsuit.

The groups also accuse the city of being in breach of the state’s Brown Act rules, which dictate when a meeting between public officials should be open to the public versus behind closed doors. Multiple attempts to get documents related to more than 20 closed-door meetings related to Google’s land purchases have come up short of what is required by law, they claim.

“This lawsuit will pry those documents and that information loose,” David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said at the press event. “California law is very clear. Government officials cannot contract way the public's right to know.”

San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle pushed back on those accusations in an interview and said the city would respond to the lawsuit.

Doyle said he had no concerns about defending the legality of the city’s actions related to the Google negotiations to date. “No one was hiding from the California public records act or any kind of a state laws,” he said.

The NDAs signed by city officials haven’t been in use since the June 9, 2017 announcement, he said, emphasizing that the city has undertaken “the most transparent project that I've seen,” when it comes to the discussions around what Google should build.

Doyle noted, however, that the negotiations by the city so far have not been about the project that will rise in the city, but about the sale of land. Even with that limited scope, community advocates have said that the land sale is among the most critical components of the negotiation.

Fernandez told the Silicon Valley Business Journal last year that Working Partnerships USA fears that once the city sells the property to Google, the community will forfeit some of its negotiating power over what should rise and what sorts of public benefits the project must include.

Doyle confirmed that city council members did participate in closed-door sessions related to land sale negotiations with Google, but said that the city did the meetings by the book in accordance with the law.

Meanwhile, some of the missing documents that Working Partnerships and the First Amendment Coalition have been trying to obtain since earlier this summer may also become public in the coming weeks, now that the negotiations are all but wrapped up, he added.

“There have been some documents had been withheld that really get to the sort of negotiation strategy while the negotiations for the property sales had been pending,” he said. “We may revisit some of the documents that we … have withheld because there may not be a need to withhold those any longer.”

Google did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit Tuesday. The company is not named as a defendant in the suit.