K.J. lawsuit update: SN&R challenges mayor on attorney-client privilege claim

Earlier this summer, Mayor Kevin Johnson sought an injunction from the court. He wanted a judge to stop the city of Sacramento from releasing emails and records pertaining to the National Conference of Black Mayors to SN&R. The mayor named his own city and this paper as defendants. The public’s response: Yikes!

Welcome to business as usual at City Hall 3.0.

Johnson, of course, had no ground to sue this paper. The editorial staff here at SN&R enjoys a legal right to do newsgathering. It’s our job as journalists, and it’s protected under California and U.S. law. The mayor and his attorneys should know this. Yet K.J. went ahead and sued us, anyway. It’s crazy.

Originally, there were fewer than 100 emails that K.J. considered shielded because of attorney-client privilege. But, on the heels of an afternoon in court in early July, that number ballooned to nearly 500. The city said that it was flagging additional emails out of an “abundance of caution.”

It may be of little surprise, then, that the city was a smidge too cautious.

Johnson’s attorneys at Ballard Spahr recently provided SN&R with a list of all the emails and documents that the mayor now considers private. And, after all the legal threats and abundances of caution, they now say only 158 of the 475 records should be kept secret. That’s a vastly smaller number.

And yet we still disagree.

After SN&R’s review of a list detailing the emails, it’s clear that dozens of “K.J. Inc.” players—aides, volunteers, PR experts, even interns—were privy to these so-called privileged emails. Nearly everyone on staff—plus more than a dozen workers who are not employed by the city—has seen them.

These emails are not private conversations between the mayor and his legal counsel. They’re not protected. These emails are public records.

And so, SN&R will continue to fight this legal fight. We’re challenging the mayor’s claim that these remaining 158 emails and documents are private. This paper is also teaming up with Gawker Media, the parent company of Deadspin, which will be intervening in this case as part of the opposition.

This fight isn’t cheap. SN&R isn’t The McClatchy Co. (thankfully), but incurring tens of thousands of dollars in lawyer fees during this legal action isn’t our idea of making it rain. It’s a hit to our editorial budget.

But the fight is crucial: City Hall is host to a severe infection of good government and ethics policy. Reform is needed now. The mayor needs to cease using secret Gmail accounts for city work. He needs to stop doing campaign and private work on city time.

There must be a return to accountability. Hopefully, this legal battle will serve as a blast of sunshine on 915 I Street.