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Beach campfire on lake with sand shore. burning wood on white sand in daytimeWhat’s up with Carmel these days? The City Council has engaged in some very un-Carmelish behavior of late.

About this time last year the council began a six-month experiment with parking meters, devices long considered to be the ultimate insult to the dignity of the village. The council hoped to demonstrate that meters would solve a long-standing problem of too many cars and not enough parking spaces.

Parking “kiosks” (single meters designed to serve an entire block) were installed up and down Ocean Avenue to see what would happen. As I expected, locals avoided them by parking on every other street where parking was still free, while tourists, who didn’t know any better, paid up. But city officials didn’t interpret the results that way. They saw that Ocean Avenue parking spaces opened up more often and, based on that criteria alone, they declared the experiment a success. When almost nobody else agreed with that two-dimensional analysis, the city removed the meters. End of story.

This past week the council ventured down a similarly dubious path. By a slim 3-2 majority they approved the first reading of a controversial ordinance to declare beach fires a “public nuisance,” which would bring an abrupt end to a century-old social tradition. With a single vote on a simple subject, the council has set a course destined to leave a lot of their constituents very upset.  Unless at least one of the three shows a willingness to compromise, the ship called City Hall is going to run aground on Carmel Beach as early as next month.

Beach fires have become a bit of a problem mainly due to their increasing numbers. Carmel is one of the few places left on the California coast where your family and friends can still gather around a fire to toast hot dogs and marshmallows on a foggy summer evening. For that reason people flock to Carmel beach to enjoy this simple social ritual that humans have engaged in since caveman times. Lots of people mean lots of fires. Lots of fires mean lots of smoke and lots of black ashes discoloring Carmel’s famous white sand. Too much of a good thing has gotten very messy.

Earlier this year the city had a plan to manage fires by placing 26 fire rings along the beach between 10th and 13th Avenues. The rings would contain the filthy ashes, and the number of fires allowed at any one time would be limited. Still, I thought 26 was too many. After all we’re still talking about eight to nine fires per block. In years past a busy night might see maybe a dozen fires, so 26 seemed overly generous. Unfortunately, some folks took the opposite view and decided 26 was too restrictive. They appealed the plan to the California Coastal Commission hoping to get a better deal. The CCC will consider the appeal next week.

Meanwhile, the city council grew concerned that the smoke from so many fires might get the city in trouble with state and regional air quality bureaucrats. Last summer an air quality monitor placed at a nearby residence detected unhealthy levels of smoke on just two nights, once in June and again on the 4th of July. Apparently something in that smoke made city officials go batshit crazy and they abruptly changed course.

The city passed a temporary emergency ordinance banning fires on weekends until proper studies could be done to find the best solution. But the Coastal Commission didn’t think two nights of bad air over three months was sufficient justification to declare an emergency. They told the city not to enforce the ban. Miffed city officials essentially said “screw you” to the Coastal Commission and escalated the conflict beyond reason. They decided they could make an end run around the Coastal Commission ruling by declaring beach fires a “public nuisance.” With Mayor Jason Burnett leading the charge, they drafted the ordinance to permanently ban all fires. This may have satisfied their egos, but it has ignited the anger of beachgoers.

It’s troubling enough to see the council so willing to dismantle an important component of Carmel’s unique social culture. Even more disturbing is how they are doing it, effectively bypassing the normal avenues of forming public policy. The proper course, which the city was following until recently, is to gather public input, study various alternatives, find ways to mitigate potential problems, and develop a plan. It’s a somewhat tedious process, but it usually works out for most of us. The 26 fire ring proposal grew out of that process. Now, it has all been chucked out the window and a total ban is being imposed on the community with minimal debate. In fact Mayor Burnett has made it clear he is not open to alternatives. In Wednesday’s Herald he was quoted “For me it comes down to the health impact of the smoke, for me, it’s an area where I can’t compromise.”

Yet the smoke reached unhealthy levels on only two evenings. Two. In fact, the proposed ordinance doesn’t cite fires as the problem per se, only the “excessive number of beach fires during peak use periods” such as Independence Day festivities. The key to a fair and reasonable solution, then, is not a complete ban but a limit on the number of fires allowed at any given time.

I think limiting fires to about 10 or 12 fire rings is a fair number, especially if they must be confined to the three-block segment of the beach where fires are currently allowed. Some experimentation with their placement might further reduce smoke drift into the surrounding neighborhood. These steps should limit smoke to historical levels, which folks seemed comfortable with in the past. The rings would confine coals and ashes to keep the beach clean and safe. To keep things simple, fire rings would be available on a first-come first-served basis, much as with picnic tables in parks. though a reservation system might be helpful for busy holiday weekends. I think this is a reasonable compromise, and should be satisfactory to almost everyone.

The question is whether Carmelites can convince at least one more council member that compromise is reasonable. I fear the mayor is a lost cause. That leaves Victoria Beach and Ken Talmage, but they’re coming across as more fearful of what the air quality bureaucrats might do than they are of the townsfolk they supposedly represent. As with the parking meter program, the council majority seems primarily interested in the technical aspects of the issue while disregarding the social and cultural implications of their actions. In a tightly knit community like Carmel, with deep-rooted social traditions, that is a huge political mistake.

James Toy lives in Seaside. This first appeared on one of his  blogsMr. Toy’s Mental Notes.

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500_F_53293135_27J85jZn71YPw8YyiI93FVhmRFHQ1gFuThe following is a letter from Bill Hood to the Monterey County grand jury, which is looking into the personnel actions and other issues that have rocked Carmel City Hall in recent months. Hood lives in Carmel and is a former executive director of the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments.

I am a former full-time resident of Carmel, and currently live on the Peninsula as a part-time resident.  I am a semi-retired member of the California Bar and follow closely the actions of local government agencies, including the city of Carmel.   I have spoken out, both personally and in the media, about issues relating to lack of leadership relative to realization of a reliable water supply, transparency in decision-making, and prudent management of public funds.

This past week, an article appeared in the Carmel Pine Cone calling for an immediate response to the grand jury, given the fact that the above-referenced investigation is currently underway.   I respectfully request that this letter be distributed to the jury members and staff, and that it be incorporated as part of the record that is being compiled during the investigation.

The Pine Cone article states that Mayor Jason Burnett sent a letter in November  2014 requesting the grand jury to “review our organization, our corrective action and make any additional recommendations.”   While his request, taken out of context, would seem to be a prudent action, when considered within the context of the history of Jason Stilwell’s time as city administrator, it is very telling, indeed.

Mr. Burnett’s letter and the request therein can only be interpreted as a too-late attempt to cover the fact of his and his council members’ continuing failure to exercise any reasonable level of oversight in the face of numerous actions taken by Stilwell and his senior staff that would have raised red flags to even the casual observer.

While I am focusing on the belief that those involved negligently failed in their official responsibilities, the possibility exists that the actions of Stilwell and some of his staff were actually in response to direct orders to do so.  If that is found to be the case, then negligence, while still unacceptable, would  not be involved, and the level of breach of the public trust would become more serious.

Interestingly, when the string of Stilwell decisions first became public knowledge, and in spite of the immediate concern and indignation that arose in the community, Mr. Burnett’s first reaction was to praise Stilwell.   And, importantly, the mayor’s request, in looking to the future by asking for “recommendations,” ignores the past.   Past failures in responsibility that actually caused harm to others, and which are proven by your investigation, clearly cannot be overlooked.   Such failures demand appropriate and relevant responses that are not confined to “Yes, you made a mistake; we are not going to punish you, but will simply tell you what not to do in the future.”

Recommendations for future corrective action are necessary, but it would be a whitewash to completely allow harmful actions already taken to get by with a slap-on-the wrist and no more.  The “corrective actions” to which Mr. Burnett refers are a valid request, but, once again, on their face they ignore any responsibility for all of the time in which prior harmful actions took place, but no “corrective actions” (“oversight,”  from my perspective) were to be found.

For example, Burnett, the council and the city attorney apparently sat idly by while undeserving staffers were fired by Stilwell’s assistants, out-of-area consultants were hired and paid exorbitant amounts, rubber-stamped by those who were elected or appointed to protect the public trust.  To the extent they looked the other way or asked no questions regarding Mr. Stilwell’s questionable actions and the results that flowed from them during the time when they took place, the mayor, council members, and even the city attorney abdicated their responsibilities, and by doing so, violated that trust.

Some have told me that the city attorney was deliberately kept out of the loop with respect to much of what Stilwell did.   That may be true.  But, in his capacity as city attorney, I would have hoped that person would have immediately realized that reality, and spoken up as to what his position should expect of him.

As an attorney who has served as in-house counsel for several major corporations and government agencies, I did not need to be told that my responsibilities included primary involvement in the careful selection and ongoing management of outside counsel.   And, with respect to both lawyers and other consultants, I routinely reviewed contracts and other legal documents binding my clients for legal accuracy and to ensure that questionable or detrimental provisions were properly addressed.

Under Stilwell’s tenure, available information seems to indicate that the city attorney was not asked to undertake that important role or that he did not exercise his own initiative to demand that he do so.  It is once again very telling that, this late in the game, he has been asked to go back and review and evaluate contracts entered into by Stilwell with respect to consultants and law firms.   A normal and necessary procedure would be for an in-house counsel (which the city attorney is for the city) to review communications and billing documents from outside counsel on a regular basis as part of hands-on oversight.  If the city attorney failed to do so, for reasons not his fault, then the mayor and council should assume responsibility for their failure in not requiring him and Stilwell to follow that procedure on every occasion.

Their collective failure to do this has, in part, led to the situation that has triggered your investigation.

Therefore, I respectfully request that your investigation:

  1. identify all  persons within the city’s governmental structure who had any element of responsibility for Stilwell and/or his staff’s actions that resulted in harm, but failed to do anything about them; or, in the alternative, specifically directed Stilwell and/or his staff to undertake those same actions;
  2. describe, to the greatest extent possible, the harm suffered by individuals targeted by the foregoing actions that caused the harm;
  3. take into account the harm caused to the greater Carmel community and to the city’s reputation as a result of the foregoing actions; and
  4. recommend corrective actions not only to prevent future recurrence of such failures, but also as to appropriate sanctions that should be levied upon those found guilty of any failures so identified.

In addition, in order for the investigation and its conclusions and recommendation to be acceptable and relevant, it must be undertaken in a completely objective and fair manner, with respect not only to those who may be targets of the investigation, but also to the public, which has already suffered harm as a result of the events that transpired.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

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