≡ Menu

Though the caption says this is Royal Calkins, it isn’t. It’s Paul Miller being interviewed on KSBW about media issues. For the record, Calkins is better looking.

Despite its down home name, the Carmel Pine Cone cultivates an image as an aggressive little newspaper, vigilantly protecting the public’s interest in open government. For the better part of two years, it waged weekly battle against Carmel City Administrator Jason Stilwell, accusing him of stealthily campaigning to eliminate conscientious city employees for inexplicable reasons and trying to cover his tracks by rejecting legitimate requests for public information.

That impression was severely undermined, however, by a report from the Monterey County grand jury two weeks ago. Defying most expectations, the grand jury found that the weekly paper had essentially manufactured crisis in City Hall through one-sided reporting, creating the community pressure that led Mayor Jason Burnett and the City Council to cut Stilwell loose last fall even though almost everything he had done was at their direction.

The grand jury found that Stilwell’s personnel actions were logical and legal and that the city’s decision to reinstate several of the employees after his departure was at least partly the result of political panic sparked by the news coverage.

Through it all, the Pine Cone portrayed Stilwell as a rogue outsider and itself as the hometown watchdog motivated only by a yearning for good governance and comity of the type it had enjoyed with previous administrators. The impression was turned on its head, however, by the grand jury’s findings, some of which are fleshed out by this week’s release of a series of text messages between the Pine Cone and the mayor while all that drama was playing out at City Hall.

The messages released in response to public records requests indicate that despite all its huffing and puffing, the newspaper enjoyed an uncommonly cozy relationship with previous administrations at City Hall and with Burnett even after Stilwell’s arrival. Even while Pine Cone Publisher Paul Miller clashed angrily and openly with Stilwell, the messages showed that Burnett regularly sought Miller’s counsel on parking and political issues and that the two routinely coordinated their efforts in support of California American Water’s desalination project.

The new texts, coupled with earlier correspondence between Miller and Stilwell, also indicate that Miller heaped praise on the mayor and offered him the ability to weigh in on the gist and tone of some news stories.

“You are working so hard and doing such a great job you certainly should have another term in office,” Miller told the mayor in one undated message. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t want to. The city is lucky to have you.”

Interested in more? Here’s a link to a Royal Calkins column from 2013 about the early stages of the Miller/Stilwell relationship. A highlight: “You are a rookie in Carmel and you should respect what I have to say.”

The newspaper and its fan base have expressed great displeasure with the grand jury report although the paper, like the daily Monterey Herald, has provided almost no details on its substance. Though the grand jury delved much more deeply into city politics and functionality than anyone had expected, Miller and associates dismiss its detailed report as flawed but they have failed to provide any real examples of its supposed shortcomings. An editorial in today’s Pine Cone says the report has zero credibility but includes nothing to back up that opinion.

Regardless of what spin is being put on the report, the messages lend support to that old advice about not believing everything you read.

For instance, the top story in the Nov. 29, 2013, edition provided significant new information about Carmel’s investigation into city employees receiving unauthorized pay raises and providing sensitive information to outsiders, an investigation that Stilwell started and that would help lead to his downfall. The details were mostly supplied by Burnett, and most readers likely came away with the impression that the newspaper had pried them out of the mayor.

A different picture arises, however, from the text messages. For instance, in a text to Burnett three days before reporter Mary Schley’s story appeared atop page 1, Miller thanked the mayor for briefing the paper and added, “I’ll keep a very sharp eye on Mary’s story to make sure nothing is in there that you didn’t intend to be in there.”

Similarly, the messages put a different light on a story a month earlier about an unsuccessful legal effort by the paper to require the city to turn over the resume’ of the city’s new planning director. In that story, the paper patted itself on the back for its aggressiveness, and included some posturing from Miller.

“(I)t’s important to remember that government officials cannot be trusted to decide on their own what the public is allowed to see,” Miller was quoted as saying. But in a message to Burnett shortly before the article appeared, he wrote, “I completely rewrote the top six graphs of Kelly’s story. Can I go over them with you to make sure I have it right?”

The text messages were released by the city this week in response to public records requests filed by someone identifying himself only as Marshall Duncan, likely an alias of Stilwell, who resigned under great political pressure last fall. The messages cover the period starting with Stilwell’s hiring in early 2013 and ending this May. He is now working as a deputy city manager in Santa Maria and has declined to comment on the grand jury report that has rewritten recent Carmel political history.

Many of the text messages involve arrangements for meetings and briefings involving Burnett and either Miller or reporter Schley. In one message, Schley suggests that Burnett may want to stop having her tag along to private meetings in the interest of promoting candor. In a message to Miller, Burnett suggests that a City Council retreat might have been more effective if Schley had not been there because some city officials weren’t fully forthcoming in her presence.

Miller replied, “I you want to have council retreats without a reporter being there, you should let me know. I don’t see anything wrong with it specially if it would help council members speak freely once in a while.”

The texts contain references to efforts by Burnett to arrange conciliatory conversation between Miller and the administrator but there were no signs of success. At one point, Miller wrote to Burnett “Stilwell is so strange I’m actually afraid to talk to the guy.”

Later, he continued, “The only answer is for Stilwell to reinvent himself as a human being. Since he couldn’t do that even if he wanted to we’ll just have to suffer until he leaves. And then it will take 10 years to undo the damage.”

Burnett, bound by a non-disparagement clause in Stilwell’s departure agreement, has said little about the matter publicly but he did say after release of the grand jury report that he felt he had been deceived by Stilwell about the processing of some of the terminations.

To critics who say he put Stilwell into harm’s way and then threw him under the bus, Burnett said this week, “I supported him as long as I could.”

Oddly, Miller didn’t hold Burnett responsible for any of the difficulties he encountered at City Hall, at least according to the messages. They contained repeated references to private meetings between Burnett and Schley and coffee shop sessions between Burnett and Miller on topics including parking meters and the drought. In one message, Burnett said he wanted to discuss his re-election plans with Miller. After Stilwell’s departure, Burnett messaged Miller to suggest he meet with a candidate to replace the administrator.

Miller is a former broadcast journalist who has had unusual financial success at the helm of a small-town publication. His paper is thick with both advertising and news, most of it decidedly local. With the Herald largely abandoning coverage of city governments locally, the Pine Cone has had the Carmel market mostly to itself. Miller has used his pulpit on the editorial page, and elsewhere at times, to bash environmentalists and bureaucrats and boost California American Water at every opportunity. In editorials, he has accused the Herald of publishing “lies” in an attempt to thwart Cal Am’s desalination project but he has not provided specifics.

At times, he has used his editorials as a battering ram. When a Pine Cone article on teaching salaries prompted a letter of complaint from a local teacher, Miller called her incompetent and worse while severely mischaracterizing and misquoting her letter even though it was published in the same edition. When former Carmel City Councilman Steve Hillyard spoke up in defense of Stilwell after the administrator’s departure, Miller responded with a highly loaded news story and an entire editorial criticizing Hillyard. In it, Miller added an unsubstantiated charge of nepotism onto the list of Stilwell’s purported sins. In a text to Burnett, Miller asked, “Is Hillyard stupid?” Burnett’s response was not recorded.

Hillyard did not respond to the Partisan’s calls for comment.

 The text messages between the newspaper and the mayor hardly paint a complete picture of that relationship but they do indicate a surprising level of cordiality during such seemingly tense times.

Miller and Burnett were united in opposition to Measure O, the June 2014 ballot measure that would have launched a public takeover of California American Water’s local operations. Burnett has taken the political lead in Cal Am’s effort to build a desalination plant to serve the Peninsula.

Shortly before Measure O’s defeat, Miller sought some advice from Burnett.

“When do you think my next, and probably final, No on O editorial should run?” he asked.

Next week, Burnett replied.

Burnett, young, ambitious and rich through his family, the Packards of Silicon Valley fame, seemingly has hitched his political career to the desalination issue. On the plus side, he has demonstrated both leadership skills and a willingness to take a risk in the volatile arena of water politics, something that other area politicians have avoided. It has won him heavy support from the hospitality industry while costing huge points among environmentalists and others who are concerned about the costs to the consumer. Those are points he likely could win back, though, if the many obstacles to a desalination project can be overcome

Asked how he might reassure supporters put off by his role as a Cal Am booster in league with Miller, he said, “Our efforts to find a new sustainable water supply are, at their core, about stopping the illegal pumping of the Carmel River and restoring the habitat. I’m proud to have had a role in bringing together diverse interests to help solve the water problem in an environmentally responsible manner. We have groups representing major portions of the environmental, business and farming communities all supporting the same path forward. Our project is being held out by environmental groups across in the state as how to best pursue desalination; conservation first, subsurface intake, care regarding brine discharge and possibly landfill gas to power the pumps.”

In another text message exchange with Miller, the mayor cheerfully reported that a judge had ruled in favor of Cal Am on a key issue involving test wells, ruling against the Ag Land Trust and the Marina Coast Water District, both of which had sought to delay the testing.

What’s next, Miller wanted to know.

“Now we need to change the dynamics on their boards so they stop wasting everyone’s time and money,” Burnett replied.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Devin Podeszwa July 3, 2015, 3:27 pm

    I’m glad I’m not from Carmel. If I was my blood would be boiling! Those texts don’t paint a picture of a free press but of something else entirely…

    • Devin Podeszwa July 3, 2015, 3:44 pm

      Scratch that, the more I think about this the more pissed off I get. That kind of abuse of the press is a threat to us all!

  • Jack Hoff July 3, 2015, 4:34 pm

    And we don’t have it elsewhere? Like in Salinas?

    • Devin Podeszwa July 3, 2015, 4:39 pm

      By all means, call it out wherever you see it. I see people losing trust in the press and it scares the hell out of me.

  • James Toy July 3, 2015, 6:23 pm

    Well, it does look like Miller and Burnett may have too cozy a relationship. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Stilwell was an innocent angel.

    Anyway, it’s delightful to see that the Calkins/Miller feud is still active. I think I’ll just sit back and watch the fur fly. However, knowing how much these two despise each other, I have trouble taking seriously anything either one writes about the other.

    • Dan Turner July 3, 2015, 6:51 pm

      I’ve got a problem w/that sort of “logic” – that when people or groups dislike each other very much you can’t take what either one says seriously (meaning factual). Let’s take Jews and nazis, f’rinstance. They don’t have anything nice to say about each other but who, except for a certified idiot, would say, in effect, “a plague on both their houses, I wouldn’t believe what either one of them say about the other”? Same here. Royal is a normal, intelligent person and Miller is a crank (with a newspaper!). A blind man could see it.

    • Royal Calkins July 3, 2015, 11:36 pm

      Jim: There is some validity to your point about the criticisms that has gone back and forth but I think I can provide some guidance that might help you sort things out. When I have written about Miller and the Pine Cone, I have used examples and details, actual information, and when he has written critically about me or things I have been attached to, he has offered nothing except insult and mischaracterization. You can actually look it up.

      • bill hood July 4, 2015, 6:48 am

        Royal – regarding your disclosure in your prior blog on Carmel of those emails and texts between Miller and Burnett, that certainly brings to light facts that will change my mind. Don’t get me wrong – I stand by what I already said that I felt the Herald’s take on the GJ report’s evaluation of the Pine Cone’s role because that opinion was based on information that I read, as opposed to what I heard. Unfortunately, as often happens, opinions are based on information available, when other information is not yet available which could be significant. I am also not reluctant to admit, that with the information you provide, I change my opinion and now believe that Miller’s and Burnett’s lack of an arms-length relationship places the Pine Cone, not in an independent investigative role, but in a role designed to actually help out the very person(s) that they are publicly excoriating. Only in Carmel. And by the way, Dan Turner, PG just changed its name to Pacific Grove-by-the-Emerald-Monterey-Bay. So there, Carmel.

        • Stephen Collins July 4, 2015, 8:54 am

          Bill, Salinas is changing its name to Salinas-by-the-Fields-and-Overlying-a-Basin-it-is-Legally-Pumping. That is 11 hyphens, so by the sheer mass of hyphens produced, Salinas wins.

  • Hal Ginsberg July 3, 2015, 6:30 pm

    Paul Miller’s “success” is a real problem for the Peninsula. His right-wing faux populism probably pushed Burnett farther to the right and helped lead to the disastrous defeat of Measure O. The really sad thing is that enough people read his nonsense and believe it to provide him with influence.

  • Louis MacFarland July 3, 2015, 6:47 pm

    It is my opinion that Paul Miller is an activist, and the Carmel Pine Cone his platform for his activism.

    Rather ironic considering how he labels others as activists if they do not align with his positions and agenda.

    Examples are when issues narrowly pass or fail at the ballot box, and then he writes there was an overwhelming statement made by the voters, or when articles on proposed developments read more like advertisements for the project, such as past articles on the proposed Rancho Canada subdivision in Carmel Valley.

  • Marc Del Piero July 3, 2015, 7:10 pm

    I am shocked! ! ! Oh, by the way, today, the California Coastal Commission refused to allow CalAm to re-start pumping its slant well because they are taking (stealing) groundwater (to which Cal-am has no legal rights or ownership) from beneath the cultivated prime farmland owned by the Ag Land Trust. It seems to me that there needs to be an end to the Cal-Am PR spin machine and the political “one-upsmanship” by ambitious but inexperienced local politicos. No one ever got elected to higher office by advocating the theft of an innocent third party’s private property, even if those actions are wrapped in the false argument of environmental restoration. The degraded condition of the Carmel River is a condition that was ordered to be resolved in 1995 by the State Water Resources Control Board. The SWRCB laid the blame for the degraded condition of the Carmel River squarely upon Cal-Am because it was taking (stealing) groundwater to which it had no rights. The Ag Land Trust and Marina Coast Water District have never caused any damage to the Carmel River. Cal-Am has not fixed its’ self-inflicted problems. Now it has spent millions trying to do the same thing (taking other people’s water) to land owners in the Salinas Valley. In the somewhat complex world of California groundwater rights law, the first and most important rule is an old one. . . “Thou shalt not steal”. Maybe, it’s time for some people to pursue negotiations (and maybe some apologies) because most residents of the Peninsula are sick of astronomical water bills, and would like to go back to having gardens instead of hayfields in our backyards. Happy 4th

    • Stephen Collins July 3, 2015, 9:42 pm

      Marc, just saw a tweet from Jim Johnson saying the new amended permit requirements will not delay the project. I assume this is a quote from someone at Cal Am. I realize that Cal Am and State law only occasionally intersect, but does this make any sense to you at all? Do they not now have to comply with some semblance of CEQA to obtain an amended Coastal Commission permit, public hearing, etc? The facts in the CC letter clearly state the slant well is impacting the aquifer. Thoughts?

  • Stephen Collins July 3, 2015, 7:37 pm

    Cal Am gets bad news and no press release from Stedman printed as news? Is the earth orbit shifting? It will be interesting to see the angst and anger at the theft victims versus the thief. Get ready Marina Coast and Agland, it is all your fault.

    • bill hood July 4, 2015, 6:42 am

      Not only that, Steve and Marc, but in reading Charles Lester’s letter to Cal-Am, he went to great lengths to include language that only be interpreted as “friendly”, “cozying up”. It’s like he is following the language in the conditions (which should not be a surprise, particularly to Cal-Am, who presumably have attorneys who can read), but that there the “don’t worry, it will all work out” tone to it. This is a side of Charles Lester I have not seen. In speaking on several occasions before the CPUC regarding the Sand City eco-resort, he was a mean-spirited sob intent on killing the project. Whether you are for the project or not, and that’s not the point, his demeanor with respect to Cal-Am is almost an “I’m on your side; work with me”. I wonder what transpired behind the scenes to create that kind of “regulatory” environment.

  • Michael Baer July 4, 2015, 8:46 am

    Well, I give Lester credit for stopping the pumping, regardless of his tone. Basically he said your assumptions and conclusions are not supported by the data, so you need to provide data that support your assumptions. That’s a hoop that will be hard for CalAm to jump through. It remains to be seen, if and when they can get the amendment to special condition 11 on their permit, and what the Santa Cruz Superior Court rules on the seperate litigations with CalAM vs AgLand Trust and Marina Coast. It’s possible that slant well will never be turned on again, because the modelling is atrocious, the HWG is biased, the location will not work without damaging the groundwater basin, and the watchdogs will challenge every misconstrued statement every step of the way.

    Interesting, the Herald neglected to mention Lester’s ruling in today’s paper, even though it was announced well before deadline. Is Jim Johnson on vacation?

    • Stephen Collins July 4, 2015, 9:02 am

      Mike, quit pointing out the facts in your writing. Johnson tweeted about the Cal Am situation, he must be on a Cal Am sponsored rager with the other spin doctors trying to figure out how to turn chickensh.. into chicken salad. The comment period on the EIR was extended 12 days because Cal Am failed to provide all required data, and now they have an$8M test well that has failed to perform as their insufficient modeling suggested it might. In Cal Am’s world this is nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

      • Royal Calkins July 4, 2015, 9:42 am

        I must defend Jim Johnson. He does not see himself as an analyst but he works hard to conscientiously chronicle the proceedings in the water world and he would not intentionally bend the truth on behalf of anyone.

        • Stephen Collins July 4, 2015, 3:00 pm

          Fair enough

  • bill leone July 4, 2015, 11:03 am

    Betrayal of the public trust for the purpose of personal & political gain is the worst transgression.
    Dante reserved the lowest level of his Inferno for men like Brutus and Cassius. That is why I
    am hoping a concerned group of Carmel citizens will take legal action against Mr. Miller &
    Mayor Burnett, for creating such costly chaos in Carmel city government. In my view, there should be a criminal investigation of the secret dealings between local politicians, local media
    (the Herald included), & corporate representatives, particularly Cal AM; conspiring to prevent
    public ownership of our water supply has serious consequences for Everyone in Monterey County.
    The Grand Jury Findings are a good place to start.
    And for those who missed the high school English lesson on separating fact from opinion:
    Grand Juries examine factual evidence, Newspaper editorials express authors’ opinions.

  • Ron Weitzman July 4, 2015, 10:50 pm

    Royal, you are better looking. I also must agree with you about Jim Johnson. He is one of the best reporters the Herald has ever had. Evidently, though, he wants to keep his job. Otherwise, why all the Catherine Stedman free spin in so many of his water articles, too often without anything like adequate input from the other side? Cal Am can afford to advertise its position; unfortunately, the loyal opposition does not enjoy the same access to ratepayer money. We cannot even get our commentaries and letters in the Herald except on a strictly rationed basis, sometimes even months apart. I have had personal experience with that, even when you were editor. What most interested me about your current blog is the documented cozy relationship between Jason Burnett and Paul Miller. What ever happened to the firewall that had existed between the news and the business side of a newspaper? In the Pine Cone’s case, it does not exist, the editor and the publisher being the same person, Paul Miller. The Herald is not much better with the publisher’s being on the editorial board and having a long history of abrupt terminations that must daily and nightly frighten every paper employee. The Omernick-Burnett relationship needs the same close inspection that the Civil Grand Jury gave to the relationship between Miller and Burnett, especially since the Sunday (July 5) editorial reads as though Burnett wrote it.

    • Royal Calkins July 5, 2015, 12:18 am

      Among the problems, Ron, is that there isn’t just one “side” on water issues. Virtually every water issue involves Cal Am one way or the other, so Stedman is always going to get an opportunity to say something. (It’s not quite the free forum she had when she was living with the Pine Cone publisher, but Jim isn’t doing anything wrong by including the obligatory Stedman quote). As for Cal Am pressure on the newspaper, yes, it is huge. While I was editor, the publisher wanted your commentaries limited and he was bothered when I ran more than Cal Am cared for. Cal Am put heavy pressure on the newspaper in various ways and was pleased to see me go. Not so incidentally, the text messages between Miller and Burnett include a couple about my departure from the Herald and how, in Miller’s view, the world would be better off because of it. But the grand jury has no jurisdiction and I’m afraid that as you watch the situation in Carmel play out, you’ll find some people who still think the Pine Cone was the good guy in the whole Stilwell affair. That is, of course, because all of the information on the subject came from the Pine Cone.

      • Stephen Collins July 5, 2015, 6:54 am

        Royal, thank you for the acknowledgement of Cal Am pressure on the press, I have sensed that must be the case for some time and my guess; the pressure from the County is no less intense. I too like Jim Johnson and my comment the other day would have been more appropriate if I said the Herald publisher was on a Cal Am sponsored rager, so my apologies to Jim. He has a thankless job. I also like Catherine and realize she is simply singing the company song. I do find it interesting, however, that Cal Am has had a huge obstacle, both from a legal and engineering standpoint placed in front of them and not a peep from the press. I realize it is the weekend, but I can not help but wonder, if Cal Am had won, would it have been front page news?

  • bill leone July 5, 2015, 7:59 am

    Since Mr. Collins mentioned Cal Am sponsored spokespersons, what about the long list of community “activists,” like Carlos Ramos, & Major Dick, ? Has anyone found Cal Am’s fingerprints on their private parts?

  • Larry Parsons July 5, 2015, 11:40 am

    As a former reporter, I find this report on the Miller-Burnett text messages both business-as-usual and alarming.
    It’s not unusual for a newspaper publisher to favor certain politicians and political viewpoints and to fashion his or her editorial pages and news coverage accordingly.
    But to invite a politician to oversee how the news is to be published or to decide whether or not a reporter attends a public meeting crosses a bright ethical line.
    No longer is the publisher content just to be a shot-caller in the community. To hand over the reins on journalistic choices to a government functionary is to become a willing propagandist. It’s reminiscent of a system where political commissars ensure the daily (or weekly) organ plays the party line.
    I feel badly for the two hard-working reporters mentioned in these messages, whose stories were reviewed not only by their publisher-editor, but evidently also by the mayor.

    • Stephen Collins July 5, 2015, 2:48 pm

      Larry, it is enlightening for we that have not fashioned a career in the fourth estate to get a feel for how “the sausage gets made”, in the newsroom. I am certain reporters have some level of review and they are only human, hence some bias. These emails are very emblematic of a broken system, and leads one to wonder, who else is pulling Miller’s chain at the Cone.