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.