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TIME FOR WEEKLY TO PICK UP THE PACE

With the Trump administration looming like greedy locusts, much is being written about what the media can and should do to help limit the destruction nationally. Simultaneously it will be a great and horrible time to be a journalist covering a president who thinks he’s king.

In his war with the press and other modern realities, Trump has enlisted legions of foot soldiers who believe the New York Times is the ultimate enemy though many of them have never read it. We are entering a time of the new regime communicating with its subjects via Twitter and expecting them to get the rest of the story from the Russians via Facebook.

It’s an upside world, with the traditional media mortally wounded though they have never been more important. Though the right and much of the left dismiss the media, we remain dependent on the newspapers and the networks to deliver most of what we know about this new order.

But what about the local situation? Does the quality of local news matter in this time of national calamity? I say yes, of course, but there is no denying that, overall, much of local journalism seems to be slipping toward irrelevance.

If Medicare and Social Security are diminished, we may know the national ramifications but who will tell us about the impact at home? If Trump tries to punish California for voting intelligently on Nov. 8, who will tell us about grants that have gone missing or field offices being closing? Of friends being loaded into trains? If you think we can count on KSBW and the Monterey Herald to keep us up to speed, you’ve been away for a while.

Just as numerous advocacy organizations are regrouping, news organizations nationally are reconsidering their missions, and it certainly is not too soon for a community conversation about the state of the local media. Consider this a status report and a call to action. A diminished news corps plays into the hands of the Trumpistas nationally and also makes it much harder for the public to follow along as corrupting influences chart the course for our institutions locally.

The one bright spot, the only bright spot locally, has been the success of the Monterey County Weekly in filling in some of the gaps created by the erosion at the Herald and the Salinas Californian. At the end of this report, look for some thoughts about what the community can do to encourage the Weekly – and possibly others — to take on a larger load.

As some of you know, I was an editor at the Monterey Herald for more than a dozen years and then the chief editor for a couple of years until the bosses there became tired of my ways. (Cost-cutting played a role.) I still have friends at the paper and at other media outlets that I will be mentioning. Media people tend to look at media critics the same way police officers look at Internal Affairs and I’m hoping they won’t take my analysis too personally.

For decades, and longer, the Herald was the dominant news organization of Monterey County. Arguably, it now shares that distinction with the Weekly and KSBW. How times have changed.

THE HERALD

The Herald was founded in 1922 by Col. Allen Griffin, a real-life Army colonel with a distinguished military career both before and after becoming a newspaperman. Newspapers back then were different. They were solidly black and white and equally stodgy but they took stands. They pointed out problems in their communities and campaigned for solutions. Griffin fought, with some notable success, for preservation of historic buildings, especially Monterey’s Colton Hall, elimination of coastal blight, eradication of billboards, and for trees. He had some influence on how Highway 1 was configured as it snaked through the Peninsula.

The colonel was a Republican but Democratic administrations repeatedly tapped him for trade missions. He was a member of every important organization in town and he was eager to share his opinions, either in conversation or in print.

Unfortunately, 14 years before his death, the colonel sold the Herald in 1967 to the Block family of Ohio, which operated it as part of a small chain. In a trade of assets, the Herald was then acquired in 1992 by a larger chain, the E.W. Scripps Co. It was traded again in 1997 to the Knight Ridder chain, which made it part of bigger and better brand name after a rocky beginning.

The Knight Ridder chain began its Peninsula tenure by firing the news staff and forcing the employees to apply for their old jobs. It was an unsuccessful attempt at union-busting and it cost the Herald much goodwill in the community. Some strong people were lost in the process.

The good news was that Knight Ridder was one of the largest and most prestigious newspaper chains in the country and the Herald, for a period, had the resources it needed to serve the community adequately.

I joined the paper in 2000 as city editor, heading the local news operation. Many have grown weary of my recitation of how many people worked for the Herald when I started and how many remain, but the information remains informative.

The newsroom back then employed almost 50 ink-stained wretches. The “cityside” news operation, producing the local report on courts, crime, politics and the like, amounted to 24 people. Today, the entire newsroom staff numbers about a dozen and the volume of local news has declined almost as dramatically. Good public officials like seeing a reporter in the room when the council or commission meets. Bad public officials prefer to work in the dark.

While the end of the 20th century had been fat years for the newspaper industry – with annual returns for individual properties often exceeding 20 percent and even 30 percent – the new century was not quite as kind. Contrary to the impression you may have, the high profits continued at many newspapers but only because managers were forced to trim costs so dramatically. Initially, it amounted to mere belt-tightening. Eventually, it would become a case of self-destruction, selling of the seed corn.

Under pressure from investors used to fabulous profits, Knight Ridder put itself on the auction block in 2006 and was sold to McClatchy Newspapers, a smaller but relatively prestigious chain based in Sacramento. Unfortunately for the staff and the readers, McClatchy spun off the Herald and several other KR properties to MediaNews Group, William Dean Singleton’s chain of bargain-basement, cost-cutting newspapers.

DIGITAL FIRST

There were some twists and turns after that and each brought expense cuts and layoffs mirroring national trends. Eventually, the MediaNews Group morphed into something called Digital First Media, which tried to revitalize its holdings by putting greater emphasis on breaking news online rather than in print. It was a sound idea but it was executed slowly and the ownership, a New York-based hedge fund, lost interest.

Of significance locally, Digital First also acquired the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 2013, presenting the opportunity for cost-cutting through consolidation. Early on, the publisher and ad director of the Herald were assigned to the same duties at the Sentinel and soon after the editor of the Sentinel, Don Miller, was assigned the same role at the Herald, displacing me.

There were and are obvious opportunities for the two papers to share some of their journalistic roles as well but they have been slow to take advantage of the geographic closeness, seemingly intent more on controlling costs than on increasing reach. Recently, the features pages of both papers have been produced by the Sentinel and the two papers help each other out with some sports coverage, but otherwise there has been little overlap.

Since 2013, copy editing and page layout for the Herald, the Sentinel and several other Digital First papers have been handled by a crew based at Digital First’s paper in Chico. That enabled the coastal papers to lay off several copy editors. The only remnant of the old copy-editing staff in Monterey is workhorse wordsmith Christy Hoffknecht, who is responsible for coordinating matters with the Chico desk.

In charge of the news operation is Miller, who spends more than half his time in Santa Cruz and who had been expected to have retired by now. He was the longtime No. 2 editor in Santa Cruz, working for many years under the now retired executive editor of the Sentinel, Tom Honig. Honig now works part time writing editorials for the Herald and the Sentinel. (After leaving the Sentinel, Honig worked briefly for the David Armanasco PR operation in Monterey and for the Panetta Institute.)

In some ways, Miller and Honig are more at home in Monterey than in Santa Cruz. The Sentinel for decades was a sharply conservative voice in an increasingly liberal community. (I worked there, too, for a couple of years before moving to the Herald.) In private and in editorials, they were openly hostile to the city’s left-wing politicos, though the tone has moderated in recent years. For years, before taking on their Peninsula responsibilities, they regularly attended the Panetta lecture series and became fairly chummy with former Monterey Mayor Dan Albert, the Cannery Row fellows and others from the Peninsula power structure.

EDITORIALS

Honig may not be a registered Libertarian but he should be. Miller’s political leanings are not as clear as Honig’s but he is no rocker of boats. They are joined on the editorial board by Publisher Gary Omernick and Phyllis Meurer, the former Salinas City Council member and wife of former Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer, who now works for the Panetta Institute. Together, they have supported most development projects, including the ill-considered Monterey Downs, and all pro-development candidates. Phyllis Meurer, in fact, played a leadership role in a ballot measure campaign intended to advance the Monterey Downs project, which has since died a natural death.

To some extent, most daily newspapers attempt to reflect their communities editorially. In much the same way that the Sentinel was never in tune with Santa Cruz, the current Herald leadership seems to have misread the Peninsula and the rest of Monterey County, which is a deep shade of blue. It may not be as liberal as Santa Cruz, but few places are. The paper has become a constant champion of Cal Am Water and seldom misses an opportunity to dismiss environmentalists as nettlesome obstacles to progress.

Under Miller is City Editor Dave Kellogg, a veteran editor who spent much of his career with the sports staff at the San Jose Mercury before becoming sports editor at the Herald. Few editors anywhere work harder under more trying circumstances. Having too few reporters to supervise does not make the job easier.

Many recognizable names are gone from the cityside news operation. Larry Parsons, Virginia Hennessey, Julia Reynolds, Dennis Taylor, all departed. Significantly, they were among the strongest writers ever to work for the Herald, and Hennessey and Reynolds were two of the strongest investigative reporters. What remains is a small reporting crew with a big heart but limited range.

The only survivor in the sports section is John Devine, who has covered high school sports in Monterey County longer than anyone. Few reporters anywhere work harder.

Covering county government and the all-important water beat is Jim Johnson, who is remarkably thorough and accurate but who seldom endeavors to dig beyond Cal Am Water’s official line even though water and Cal Am’s role in delivering it amount to the most important local stories of the time. You may have noticed that when something big happens in the water world, such as another setback for the deslination project or another Cal Am rate increase, the Herald quotes Cal Am’s spokeswoman at length but seldom seeks input from the company’s highly visible critics such as George Riley and Ron Weitzman.

Claudia Melendez Salinas covers education, social services and immigration-related issues while sharing Salinas coverage with Johnson. Melendez is a champion of the underdog, which helps her stand up to the challenge of being responsible for covering a dozen or more school districts, several colleges and other important topics. She is responsible for some the paper’s most ambitious reporting of the past couple years.

James Herrera was the Herald’s longtime graphic artist when he was pressed into service as a reporter, mostly covering Seaside and Marina. He has done an admirable job of mastering the basics but lacks the experience to dig much beyond the official agendas. He is doing a job that two reporters once handled.

Carly Mayberry’s experience is mostly in the entertainment industry. She has done solid work covering the city of Monterey and other lighter assignments but, like Herrera, isn’t generally equipped to push officialdom for details beyond what it wants to give up.

Tommy Wright was a young and ambitious sportswriter when he was reassigned to cover courts and cops for the Herald. Again, he has done an admirable job under difficult circumstances but it would take many years of experience and strong supervision before he could be expected to produce work like court reporter Virginia Hennessey put out on a regular basis.

I don’t mean to criticize any individuals here. Blame for the Herald’s deficiencies rests squarely with the ownership. But no matter where the fault rests, what the community is left with is an inadequate daily report from an overburdened news staff and superficial analysis by an opinion staff with little local foundation. Yes, this is the opinion of a disgruntled former employee, but that does not mean it is wrong.

Once there were separate news, sports and features staffs. Now the sports staff is one person and there is no features staff. Two photographers remain, solid professionals Vern Fisher and David Royal. I’m betting one will be gone within a year.

Over the past year or so, Melendez has produced some strong work on school-related topics and on a troubling rape case but the others have had virtually no time to address anything beyond the daily grind. Investigative reporting, or the euphemistically named enterprise reporting, takes time and time is money. The shareholders don’t like to share.

SALINAS

The situation at the Salinas Californian is even more dire. It is owned by Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, which has contented itself over the years with watching its products deteriorate in order to keep the cash flowing in the corporate direction.

Forever, the Californian was a six-day weekly but it now publishes only three times a week. Its Alisal Street headquarters was recently sold and the staff soon will move to smaller quarters. A short-term rental would seem prudent.

With the looming retirement of veteran journalist Roberto Robledo, who has handled just about every newsroom task, the news staff will be down to two reporters and there is an open question about whether it will remain that way. Columnist and City Hall reporter Jeff Mitchell once covered the Salinas hospital’s troubles well and he has produced significant City Hall coverage but he now works principally on health issues under a special grant, so his voice is usually missing from the daily report.

The newspaper offices close at 5 p.m. and so does the search for news. Salinas is better off with the Californian than without it, but that’s the about best that can be said of the situation.

THE WEEKLY

Fortunately, there is the Monterey County Weekly. Usually, weekly papers in communities with dailies are called alternative papers, but the Weekly has become required reading.

Originally known as Coast Weekly, the paper was formed in 1988 by Bradley Zeve of Carmel Valleyy, who has become an active figure in alternative press organizations. While most papers of its type focus largely on entertainment and food, the Weekly has put greater energy into coverage of government, politics and the environment.

For much of the time I worked at the Herald, I found that the Weekly covered pretty much the same topics and, with a weekly deadline instead of daily deadlines, often did a better job explaining the fine points. I was surprised, and still am, that it didn’t adopt a flashier strategy but it has worked out well for the community.

In my humble opinion, the Weekly has unnecessarily expended much of its energy in recent years with its online effort, breaking daily news on its website, often interesting crime news of relatively low importance. With the recent departure of Editor Mary Duan, a true newshound, that seems to have fallen off, which will be a good thing if it results in more time for more thoughtful journalism.

The editorship of the Weekly has been a bit of a revolving door in recent years, in large part because of short-staffing in the management ranks and a grueling workload. Veteran reporter Sara Rubin is the interim editor and, by all appearances, has earned the permanent title but I’m hoping she can negotiate for some additional help with production duties.

There is little to fault with the Weekly’s news coverage — except for volume. The reporters have been breaking stories with some regularity, much more often than their counterparts at the dailies or the TV stations, and they weigh in frequently with solid explainers on long-running stories or environmental issues. They have done well with the Monterey Downs saga and the continuing story of severe erosion issues surrounding the Cemex plant in Marina.

My first suggestion for the Weekly – and I’m hoping for some community support here – is that it step things up.

The Weekly’s news staff numbers about eight plus the occasional intern. I don’t have any real numbers, but it appears to grown little if any over the last decade. True, most papers have lost staff; some have lost most of their staffs because of tight times. But the status quo isn’t going to position the Weekly to take a bigger role in protecting the community from the bad guys nationally and locally.

The paper is thick with ads, so I feel comfortable guessing that Zeve has the assets needed to greatly expand the news staff and the space to be filled with news. If he’s waiting for encouragement, here it is.

My second suggestion is in the same vein. It’s also about stepping up.

Back when I used to hire talented young reporters, one of the first pieces of advice I gave was to think big. Don’t try to be one of the better reporters on this staff, Be the best and then be better. If you didn’t have the ability to succeed here, I wouldn’t have hired you. Think bigger.

I have similar advice for the Weekly. Don’t settle. I’ll use this as an example, but don’t think I’m picking on you, David Schmalz.

Schmalz has done a lovely job covering the Cemex issue and several others in his relatively brief time at the Weekly, but he received perhaps the most attention for his recent piece on financial issues surrounding the family of Monterey Downs promoter Brian Boudreau.

It was a fine account, well researched and well packaged, but the information had been sitting around for a while and didn’t really connect significantly with the Monterey Downs controversy. People acted as if Schmalz had a Pulitzer on his hands. The community is starved for investigative reporting and anything that hints of it is likely to received outsized appreciation.

The point is simply this. Good work needs to become routine and truly special work is needed with some regularity unless we’re willing to concede victory to the dark forces. There is plenty of trouble to be explored in Monterey County and, given what’s happening in the rest of the county, the list of topics will only grow.

I could go on and on about the important local topics that have received no or little attention from the local media, including, in some cases, the Partisan. The Herald and the Weekly have written about the controversy over city rental practices at the Wharf but neither has provided anywhere near the depth that Willard McCrone has in the Partisan. Schmalz has written some interesting pieces about some funny real estate transactions involving developer Nader Agha and his downtown headquarters, but no one else has followed up.

The county Board of Supervisors is putting growers in charge of monitoring groundwater in the Salinas Valley, all but ignoring the interests of environmentalists and the general public, but the topic hasn’t made print.

There’s funny business afoot at Carmel’s City Hall but no one including the Carmel Pine Cone is picking up on it and the Pine Cone probably won’t bother with it until someone manages to offend the publisher.

ELECTRONICS

Oh, TV. Almost forgot.

KSBW does one thing exceedingly well. With a small news crew, it manages to cover almost every significant piece of breaking news in not one county but three – Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito. The news director, the assignment editor, someone there is a magician.

Beyond that, KSBW and, to an even greater extent, KION, shouldn’t even be mentioned in a discussion of news involving process, procedure or politics. In fact, it should be discouraged from covering topics such as Fisherman’s Wharf leasing policies or desalination because the staff has neither the time nor the expertise to cover them well. A bad news story is probably worse than no story at all.

So where does that leave us? Here’s where.

Under the current ownership, the Herald is almost a lost cause. Unless the entire news business goes through a dramatic turnaround, the staff will continue to shrink and the quality will continue to slide. The Herald has one of the most expensive subscription rates in the nation. I’m not recommending that anyone stop reading it or stop advertising in it, but I wouldn’t suggest anyone put a lot of energy into trying to fix that situation.

I suggest that people who don’t read the Weekly start reading it. (It’s free and you can find it in news boxes all over the county). And when you see something you like, let them know. And when you see something you don’t like, let them know. If you know of news, call ‘em up. If you think they are missing the news, call ‘em up.

If you advertise, advertise with the Weekly. Don’t cancel your Herald or KSBW ads but increase your budget and get your face in the Weekly.

No, I’m not getting a commission. My relationship with that publication has been a rocky affair. I thought its endorsement of Dave Potter in the last election was absolutely indefensible. Some onlookers at one recent event thought Zeve and I might have been on the verge of actually scuffling over something I had written. But it is locally owned, clearly headed in the right direction and obviously has the potential to help fix some of the things that need fixing around here if Bradley is willing to spend a buck or two.

Finally, the community should also look for other opportunities to increase the amount of time, energy and space committed to uncovering and solving the community’s problems and trumpeting its achievements. To that end, the Partisan and some of its supporters are contemplating an effort to expand our range and upgrade our offerings with a structure that involves more than a couple of old guys popping off now and then. Yes, we would be in competition with the Weekly and the rest, but competition’s a good thing.

We’re thinking a Web production with more features, wider participation, and a more sustainable financial structure. The plan isn’t even a plan yet, it’s that amorphous, but you will be hearing more about it. If you have encouragement or support to offer, if you’d like to be part of it, chime in below or send me your thoughts at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

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Business growth opportunity concept as a group of business people taking advantage of a tall tree grown in time to create a bridge to cross over and link two seperate cliffs as a motivation metaphor for financial patience and opportunismThe Partisan takes a timeout from its Truth-O-Meter series today to look instead at two recent endorsements by the Monterey Herald. It probably is not a coincidence that we chose these editorial endorsements because they ran exactly counter to the Partisan’s own choices.

We won’t argue the overall recommendations. Newspaper endorsements don’t have to make sense. Instead, we will pick and choose some of the key elements that seem to underly those choices.

More than any other topic, the Herald’s endorsement of Dennis Donohue to replace District 4 Supervisor Jane Parker focused on Fort Ord and the pace of redevelopment there.

It noted that the district takes in much of Fort Ord and says “the position and ideas of the District 4 Board of Supervisors candidates on reuse of Fort Ord are key factors in our endorsement, given the hopes pinned on Fort Ord reuse by the entire region for economic redevelopment, housing and jobs.”

The editorial, unfortunately, neglects to explain the governance of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority, which is responsible for redeveloping the former Army base or, perhaps closer to the truth, for not really getting very far on redeveloping the former base, which closed in the mid 1990s.

The agency charged with redevelopment is governed by an unwieldy board of directors, 13 members with voting rights and a large cast of non-voting members. The voting members represent most of the government jurisdictions with a stake in the process, including the surrounding cities and the county. Four of the five supervisors are members or alternates. Parker is a member and so is Supervisor Dave Potter, who received the Herald’s endorsement in the other supervisorial race. By implication, the Herald seems to be faulting the FORA board in general for not doing more to turn old barracks into new shopping centers, but where exactly should that blame land? The Herald seems to be forgetting that Donohue was an active member of the FORA board while he was mayor of Salinas and, therefore, the newspaper made little of his  missed opportunity to speed things up. The Herald also seems to forget that a large segment of the local population isn’t all that keen on major new development at Fort Ord.

What’s that? One person can’t provide much momentum to the redevelopment bureaucracy. Our point exactly.

The Herald likes it that Donohue is in favor of the proposed but way-off-in-the-distance Eastside Parkway, a new highway that would run through Fort Ord to connect Highways 68 and 1. Again, as much as the Herald might wish it otherwise, while an individual supervisor wields considerable power on issues that come before the five-member Board of Supervisors, the same supervisor holds just one of 17 votes on the primary highway-building agency hereabouts, TAMC.

The Herald finds it telling that most of the city officials in the district support Donohue rather than Parker. The Partisan finds it telling as well. Those who support Donohue have histories of supporting virtually any project in their realms, everything from cookie-cutter fast food joints to the hugely unpopular Monterey Downs horse racing complex proposed for Fort Ord.

Herald political endorsements of late seem to hinge on the degree to which the candidate supports development, and while the development wish list always gives a nod to jobs and affordable housing, few public figures in our midst have accomplished anything of note in those arenas in recent years. Perhaps the newspaper blames Parker. If so, it has not been paying close attention. Peninsula residents, and to some degree all Monterey County residents, are witnessing a contest between the forces of commerce and the forces of conservation. While Donohue, like many other development-minded politicians, claims to be in favor of “smart growth,” he and his allies haven’t been able come up with concrete examples to propose or support.

The Herald’s endorsement of Donohue overstates the impact of one public official and mistakenly suggests that electing him over Parker would change the board and its direction. Actually, the opposite is true. Parker throughout her political career has been a nearly lone wolf fighting to protect the environment and she has been outvoted at nearly every turn by people in synch with Donohue. Keeping Parker in place and making changes elsewhere, such as in District 5, would amount to much more meaningful and positive change.

In case you didn’t notice, that was a transition. Moving along now to the Herald’s endorsement of District 5 Supervisor Dave Potter over challenger Mary Adams.

In the Potter endorsement, the Herald gives the incumbent big points for experience and tenure without mentioning what little has come of it.

“On water, Potter clearly knows the urgency of securing a new Peninsula supply,” the Herald writes. “He supports Cal Am’s desal project with reclaimed waste water as part of the total solution. Adams indicated she was still uncertain about the desal project, and she placed a higher emphasis on conservation.”

It is true that Potter “clearly knows” the urgency of securing a new Peninsula water supply. That’s because the state’s mandate that we cut back on our use of the Carmel River has been in effect the entire time he has been in office but his clear knowledge of the urgency has resulted in nothing except huge expense.

While serving on the board for two decades, Potter has worn a remarkable number of other hats. He has been on the state Coastal Commission and has forever been a board member for the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. If there is any one public official who could have been expected to show leadership on the Peninsula’s water crisis, it was Potter. Yet the only leading role he seems to have taken was to help lead the county into a messy conflict of interest involving water official Steve Collins, a conflict that derailed years of work on a desalination solution.

It is true that Adams places a higher value on conservation. A large majority of Peninsula residents has lost faith in Cal Am and officialdom’s ability to complete a desalination project at anything approaching a reasonable cost and, out of necessity, also places a higher value on conservation.

“Potter has a much better grasp of all facets of the water issue, and there really is not any time for a steep learning curve on this critical issue,” the Herald opines. What Potter truly grasps is how a community spent 20 years failing to make measurable progress. If Adams is elected, it will take her about 20 minutes to get caught up on that history.

The Herald also likes it that Potter likes the idea of an Eastside Parkway and criticizes Adams for not knowing much about it. The Partisan’s suggestion is simply this. If it is so important to the local economy and well-being, perhaps some explanatory articles would be advisable. And perhaps the Herald can think of a way to give some special highway-building, job-creating, water-making powers to their favored candidates in case they win.

Partisan proprietor Royal Calkins is a former editor and opinion page editor for the Herald and, therefore, cannot convincingly assert that he is not disgruntled in at least some respects.

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Oil and gas well profiled on sunset skyRead this if you want, but it’s really meant for Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas.

Hey Simon. How are things?

Did you see the Herald today. It had a well done article about the anti-fracking initiative that local activists are working on and the oil industry-sponsored ad campaign to combat it.

The article mentioned that Monterey County is the only California county without regulations to protect critical water sources from oil production. And then it had you saying you were concerned that the initiative might wipe out the existing oil industry here and, “My position is that if current regulations are not strict enough, then people should talk to Governor Brown and state Legislature.”

So here’s the thing, Simon.

If you’re concerned about the adequacy of local regulations on the subject, and if you’re concerned that the potential ballot measure might go too far, why don’t you and your county colleagues work on shaping some local regulations that protect the water supply without wiping out existing oil production.

If you don’t see the sense in that, let us know and we’ll draft up a new job description for you and the other county supervisors. Maybe that’ll get us on the same page.

Take care.

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Mexico refugee illegal immigration border migrant crisis economy finance war business.According to the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department, Brigido Hernandez was arrested by sheriff’s deputies on charges of disorderly conduct and drug possession last Sept. 7.

But not really.

Upon further reflection, the Sheriff’s Department says Brigido Hernandez is not Brigido Hernandez, but instead is Nazario Arguello Rodriguez, who was arrested by sheriff’s deputies on Sept. 28 on charges of manufacturing counterfeit goods.

But, strike that. The Sheriff’s Department says Nazario Arguello Rodriguez is really Juan Tentle Ortiz, who wasn’t arrested by sheriff’s deputies. Instead, he made it to the Monterey County Jail by way of the Los Angeles County Jail for reasons apparently unknown, at least unknown to the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department.

What is known about Brigido Hernandez/Juan Tentle Ortiz is that he/they was/were turned over to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials late last year after Sheriff Steve Bernal reversed longstanding county policy and invited immigration authorities to set up shop in the jail.

The identities of Hernandez and Ortiz, and numerous others, became an issue after the Partisan made a public records request for information on him/them and a number of other former Monterey County Jail inmates who had been turned over to ICE for deportation.

The public information request was prompted by a Nov. 29 opinion piece written for the Monterey Herald by Michael Moore, chief deputy of the sheriff’s corrections bureau. In his column, Moore wrote that between Aug. 14 and late November 140 jail inmates had been found to have had previous convictions that qualified them for deportation via ICE.

He elaborated somewhat, saying they all met the federal criteria under Priority 1 status, meaning they had prior felony convictions and street gang affiliation, or Priority 2 status, meaning they had at least one serious misdemeanor conviction or three less significant misdemeanor convictions.

A spreadsheet provided by the Sheriff’s Department listed 160 arrests. In 42 of those cases, the only charge listed was drunken driving. In several other cases, men arrested for drunken driving also were accused of violating probation, an indication of at least some criminal history. There were, of course, numerous arrests on more serious charges including domestic violation, battery and hit and run but there also were arrests in which the only recorded charges were prostitution and providing false information to authorities. In most cases, the inmates turned over to ICE had been arrested but not convicted of any current charges.

In his Herald article, Moore mentioned that one inmate turned over to ICE was a Castroville gang member who had been arrested for murder and drunken driving. The Partisan made inquiry into details on that suspect, largely because it seemed odd that someone wanted on a murder charge would have been turned over to immigration officials rather than to authorities where the murder charge had been filed. It turned out to be another case of mistaken identity. The fellow was facing a drunken driving charge but not a murder charge.  Both his nationality and immigration status could not be determined this week.

In most cases, it is impossible for someone outside law enforcement to verify whether someone qualifies for either Priority 1 or 2 status because arrest records for previous incarcerations are considered confidential in California. Public court records would provide answers in some cases but that would require person-by-person searches in dozens or hundreds of courthouses.

“Verifying identities is one of the biggest challenges we face, every day,” said a local police official who asked not to be identified for fear of alienating the Sheriff’s Department. “But you would think they would get the names and basic data right before handing over information like that. I hope that they got the info right before they handed the people over, but I presume they did.”

A spot check of other inmates turned up discrepancies in the dates of arrest but no obvious mix-ups of identities.

The arrest that put Joel Dorante Cruz into the hands of immigration officials involved public drunkenness in a Seaside alley in September.

Ricardo Lopez’s arrest by Sand City police was for vandalism, loitering and being under the influence.

Maria Ortiz Cortez was arrested by Salinas police for shoplifting. The arrest was either Sept. 30 or several weeks earlier, depending on which department you talk to.

The Partisan’s inquiry hardly amounts to a scientific sampling but it did turn up  a string of discrepancies serious enough to suggest additional attention should be put into an examination of how the Sheriff’s Department is processing inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. Immigration activists and others criticize law enforcement agencies such as the Sheriff’s Department that routinely provide ICE with access to inmates. They and some law enforcement officials maintain that fear of deportation prevents many undocumented aliens from cooperating with law enforcement, testifying in court or even reporting crimes. On Jan. 5, the Partisan requested a copy of the sheriff’s written policies on immigration holds and its interaction with ICE but there has been no response.

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After seeing the journalism procedural “Spotlight” in Monterey, I want more than two thumbs to thrust upward in ringing endorsement.

I was glued to the seat as the film tautly demonstrates how a Boston Globe 2002 investigation by four reporters unfolded. It shows them working their tails off to reveal the Catholic Church’s systemic cover-up of scores of sexually abusive priests and hundreds of their victims.

spotlight-keaton-schreiber-ruffalo-mcadams-slice

“Spotlight” is the better of the two great U.S. journalism films of the past 40 years. The other is 1976’s “All the President’s Men.”

The movie about the Washington Post’s Woodward-Bernstein reporting team and Watergate was a Washington, D.C., movie — secret sources, timely leaks, the reluctant but ultimately grinding strength of the capital’s machinery of political power.

“Spotlight,” though based on what happened in Boston and how a Boston paper finally told its Boston readers what happened, is really about good, below-the-surface journalism in any community.

That’s apparent from three screens (using very small type) that appear before the final credits. They compose a long list of other cities around the country and world where cover-ups of Catholic clergy abuse were brought to light after the Globe’s example.

Monterey, of course, was on the list, as someone in the row behind me said aloud as the names quickly scrolled before the lights came up.

Former colleagues of mine at the Monterey Herald had worked those local stories about abusive priests in the Monterey Diocese. And local media still work the story, as evidenced by the Monterey County Weekly’s Oct. 29 cover report on unsealed court records in a case involving alleged sexual abuse by a priest in Salinas.

Much commentary about “Spotlight” has focused on the question of whether the shrinking staffs and resources of American newspapers — especially regional papers and those in smaller cities — will support the commitment to time-consuming investigative reporting like the Globe did 14 years ago.

Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, addressed the question in two of her recent columns — here and here.

I’m hopeful important journalism about stories that mean something has a future because I see the evidence every day. That said, the media in Monterey County — home to two daily papers in thrall more to financial returns than community service — have an uphill battle to go beyond the daily blotter into the heart of matters. But there are good journalists here, new tools to gather information, new ways to tell stories, and the old fire that has always begged for “more reporters” and “more time.”

What made “Spotlight” so good were little details the film’s makers got so right about the work reporters do and the buildings where they work. It’s true there is a certain nostalgia for a very recent past at play here.

My heart raced with joy at the scene where one of the Globe reporters asks the paper’s library to pull all the clips — the paper’s previous stories — on clergy sexual abuse.

I loved rifling through those little manila envelopes stuffed with yellowed, but date-stamped clips. When the paper’s own library collected, copied and collated them, I felt bliss. Those were the days.

(Rule of thumb in working a big story: Check all the clips at the get-go.)

Other parts of “Spotlight” had me chuckling to myself. Small details in the film deftly captured so much of newsroom life.

— A farewell party in an opening scene with newsroom staffers holding small paper plates and little squares of frosted white cake. My teeth still ache with the molar memory of so many similar newsroom occasions.

In earlier days, they were usually to honor colleagues moving on to bigger papers, better jobs or family moves. Toward the end of my career, more cake breaks marked simple retirements, buyout retirements or colleagues moving into –gasp — better-paying public relations jobs. The ones who left via layoffs didn’t get to break cake at all with the shrinking pool of survivors.

— Near the end of the film, the top Globe editor scratches out something in a final draft of the first big story in the paper’s investigation. The reporters, who can’t see which of their words are being scrubbed, gasp as if their first-born children are being wrested from their arms.

“Just another adjective,” the editor explains without lifting his eyes.

That’s good editing, what every reporter needs. Nouns and strong verbs tell stories best. Adjectives and adverbs are weaker words, and too often inject a writer’s editorial opinion. Cut them away.

— In a short scene, Rachel McAdams (playing reporter Sacha Pffeifer) demonstrates what a good reporter does best: listen to what people say and ask logical follow-up questions. McAdams’ character actually spends much of her screen time doing what reporters do: knock on doors, interview people and take notes.

In this scene, she confronts a retired priest about his abuse of children. Her expression is neutral as the old man offers a sickening alibi. It wasn’t really sexual abuse, he reasons, because he derived no pleasure. Like myself, I’m sure many viewers felt like slapping the old man silly.

But McAdams’ expression remains unchanged. She hurriedly asks more questions without being judgmental. Keep people talking. That’s what reporters do.

Of course, the scene ends when the old man’s sister appears, tells the reporter to go away and slams the door. McAdams is still writing in her notebook as she goes down the steps, getting all the details of the brief exchange down in the record. She doesn’t react in any way to the door being shut in her face. That’s just part of the job.

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If you get all your local political news from the papers or TV, you can be forgiven for not knowing that Tony Barrera, a Salinas City Councilman, is running for Monterey County supervisor.

That’s because he wasn’t mentioned in one paper’s account of Assemblyman Luis Alejo’s decision to run for the District 1 supervisorial seat held by Fernando Armenta or in a TV station’s report on Alejo’s announcement. The newspaper at least mentioned Armenta. The KSBW report mentioned no one other than Alejo.

Alejo’s entry into the race likely makes Barrera even more of an underdog. Armenta, who hasn’t yet announced whether he will run again, would be able to raise far more campaign money than Barrera and so will Alejo, of course. The district takes in most of Salinas but you can expect to see most of the campaign money coming from elsewhere.

And why does this matter to you if, like most Partisan readers, you live somewhere between Salinas and the Pacific? Here’s why. Armenta is a fairly conscientious fellow when it comes to representing his district, but when it comes to important matters outside the district, especially development issues, it’s all about campaign contributions.

Armenta is a sure vote for development, good development, bad development, he doesn’t really care. His mind is made up. And if it’s a traffic-clogging project proposed for the Corral de Tierra area, a subdivision at the mouth of the valley, a model of leapfrog development in north county, his vote is just as important as that of the supervisor representing that district. If you don’t think more strip malls and cookie-cutter subdivisions would enhance the Peninsula, you want someone more thoughtful than Armenta on the board.

As it stands, the only consistent board vote for good planning is Jane Parker. She represents Seaside, Marina and a small part of Salinas. She’s up for re-election and is being challenged by former Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue. Donohue will get considerable help from the business community and development interests.

The other seat up for grabs in the coming year is held by Dave Potter, who is not quite the sure development vote that Armenta is but only because he is cagy enough to oppose developments when he knows they’ll get approved anyway. In a district that takes in Monterey, PG, Carmel, Carmel Valley and Big Sur, he is being challenged by Mary Adams, the retired United Way exec, who is receiving support from slow-growthers, progressives in general and some quarters of agriculture.

Which takes us back to Armenta’s district. If the white hats manage to re-elect Parker and elect Adams, Armenta’s re-election would mean that logic-defying developments would still have three nearly automatic votes, those of Armenta, John Phillips and Simon Salinas. Like Armenta, Salinas apparently has never met subdivision he couldn’t support.

But with Barrera or Alejo in office instead of Armenta, development proposals would be the subject of healthy examination and debate. Developments that create housing and jobs without aggravating traffic and water problems would be considered on their merits. The size of the proponents’ campaign contributions would be less likely to be the deciding factor.

In the coming months, voters countywide should study Barrera and Alejo. Barrera is the rough-and-tumble type. He has a somewhat checkered past but is trying to get people to forget it by working hard to represent everyone in his district, not just the players. Alejo is smoother, the career politician type who has wisely weighed in regularly on issues of importance in the Salinas Valley. He is moving to Salinas from Watsonville because he is being termed out of his Assembly post and needs a job. (His wife, Watsonville City Councilwoman Karina Cervantez, is running for his Assembly seat in a race that includes former Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero.)

So here’s the bottom line.

If you live on the Peninsula and prefer trees over asphalt, you can’t afford to focus only on your own backyard. You should pay attention to Parker and Adams and you also should consider getting involved in the race shaping up in Salinas.  It’s either that or watching a lot of 3-2 votes in the wrong direction.

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The man selected as Seaside’s next city manager says he will soon file a retraction demand with the newspaper that covers his previous community, Davenport, Iowa, but he won’t say what he wants corrected.

The Seaside City Council is scheduled to give final approval Thursday night to a contract with Craig Malin, who left Davenport in June after 13 years with the city. He left after the mayor demanded his resignation because, in the mayor’s view, he had acted without authority in providing the city’s help for a casino under construction. Malin says he did not resign and was not fired and said he left only because he had accomplished all his goals.

4d8b52d02e3b2.preview-300In an article published Tuesday, Malin told the Monterey Herald that he has asked the Davenport newspaper, the Quad City Times, to retract something it published about him but he would not say what information he considers inaccurate.

“The paper published information which was false,” told the Herald.  “We’re working on a resolution.” He said litigation could result if his request is not honored.

“I expect the Times will get the retraction demand next week,” he said.

Generally, retraction demands are submitted to newspapers at the start of discussions over alleged errors. Asked Tuesday what information he wants retracted, Malin said, “I think that is most appropriately first shared with the Quad City Times,” which suggests that he has not shared it yet even though he says a resolution is in the works.

Asked why he wouldn’t want to disclose what information he considers inaccurate, he replied by email, “Because I have a life. Because the Times made so many errors it was difficult to pick from. Because I wanted multiple independent opinions from attorney. Because the attorney who is handling it had a health issue. Because I see no advantage – to anyone – in rushing.”

In a Partisan article posted last week, Malin suggested that coverage of his departure had led to the subsequent departures of the newspaper’s publisher and editor.

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A former colleague now lives in a sizable city where the daily newspaper became a three-days-a-week paper a couple years ago.“It’s dreadful,” she says. “We still get the printed paper, but so much of it is old news by the time it arrives. It’s a shambles. I hate what has happened to a good newspaper. The community has lost the common voice, and that bodes ill in so many ways.”

Now it’s the Salinas Californian’s turn to go from daily to three days – Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It’s a sad thing, a very sad thing for a paper that launched shortly after the Civil War, but it isn’t the newspaper or even its staff that I worry about. I worry about the community, one that has already lost much of its cohesion because of the newspaper’s slow but steady decline in recent years.

newsWednesday’s announcement had been expected for quite some as circulation tanked like it has at so many papers.

As usual, management at the newspaper felt compelled to search for a positive spin. Editor Pete Wevurski’s column about the changes wasn’t as fatuous as it might have been but the headline was the worst: “You’ll still see all your favorites … and more.”

The “more” promised in the headline apparently is additional commentary provided by you, the readers, on those days when there are enough pages to accommodate anything more than the essentials.

Publisher Paula Goudreau put her true feelings in a box and hid them beneath her desk before writing her column, which told us, “Today I am excited to announce a significant change that is an important step to assuring The Californian will continue to build on its first 144 years for many decades to come.”

“This shift – driven by our consumers and advertisers – enables us to invest in a new way of doing business and better position ourselves for the future. Salinas has evolved into one of California’s youngest markets, and research tells us that a decidedly large portion of that key younger demographic clearly prefers to get their news on mobile devices, rather than print.

“The Californian has recognized the digital opportunity these past few years and has focused on local breaking news and local content that appeals to the changing marketplace in Salinas. Its mobile apps for smart phones and tablets were upgraded early in 2014 and the mobile version of TheCalifornian.com web site is robust. And more improvements related to new kinds of content, video and advertising opportunities on the mobile platform are in development. We’ll be telling you about these in the coming weeks.

“Blah, blah, blah….”

In other words, not to worry. We’re excited to tell you that less is more.

I’m not trying to be mean here or pick on anyone at the Californian. Though it was a key component of the competition while I was at the Monterey Herald, newspaper people love newspapers and other newspaper people. It’s just that I’ve been through my own share of belt-tightening and cutbacks in the industry and I’ve heard too many people at the top of the food chain tell us that the readers would still love us no matter how thin the gruel became.

Fortunately, cutting back on production should not require any cuts to the production staff in Salinas because the paper, for the most part, is edited and put together at a sister paper in Visalia, another outpost in the huge Gannett chain.

My biggest fear now is that some bean counter at corporate will calculate that a three-day-a-week newspaper doesn’t need as many reporters as a daily. One might look at it that way, I suppose, but not after being reminded that most journalism of real value takes longer than a day to produce. In other words, there’s nothing at all wrong if a reporter working on Monday also spends Tuesday working on a story for the Wednesday paper instead of a Twitter blurb about a fender bender.

Goudreau tells us that this is not a cutback, not a retreat, but simply a change in direction, a change in platform, away from the old days of print and toward the exciting new world of digital. That is, of course, exactly what is happening at newspapers everywhere, which promote the concept of instant news on readers’ phones and laptops. Which would be a good thing if it was in addition to what we used to get in print and not a replacement.

The Herald is owned, for now, by a company known as Digital First Media, a name that included the mission statement. Unfortunately, news distributed digitally is not as lucrative as news delivered to your porch, and the company is now for sale.

Fortunately for readers on the Peninsula, Monterey County Weekly has done an excellent job supplementing the news supply as the Herald has trimmed staff and pages. For better or worse, the Weekly also has devoted considerable resources into its Web product, which unavoidably takes resources away from the print product. Still, all in all, the Peninsula is relatively well served by a combination of the Herald, the Weekly and the Pine Cone with an intermittent assist from the Partisan.

The case is not at all similar in Salinas. There isn’t a weekly. There isn’t a Salinas Partisan or, for better or worse, anything resembling the Pine Cone.

The loss of the Monday, Tuesday and Thursday Californian won’t have a dramatic impact immediately. People will get used to not having the paper every day and not knowing as much about civic affairs. The process will be gradual, like the community’s adjustment to the slippage of recent years. For now, perhaps we should take a clue from Goudreau and Wevurski and express some optimism, real or imagined.

Perhaps Gannett will discover that the old way was more profitable.

Perhaps someone will start a good weekly or a Partisan or two will spring up.

Maybe someone with more money than sense will buy the Californian and turn it into what it once was.

Or maybe, just maybe, someone at the paper will read the promises that Goudreau and Wevurski made about commitment to the news and the community and actually try to make good on them.

Wish them luck. Wish us all luck.

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JAMES TOY: Free subscribe Herald to, you can

Last night I was was watching KYMB, the local MeTV outlet, when I saw a commercial for the Monterey Herald. It started out saying that it was time to start reading the newspaper again, and to encourage you to subscribe they offered a free trial. Sort of.

“Try for a free week” the announcer said, three times. Not “try it free for a week,” or “try it for a week, free.” Nope, you can call the number and try for a free week. You may get it, you may not, but you can certainly try!

This isn’t the first time the Herald has employed atrocious grammar to sell its own product. Early last October the Herald ran a print ad promoting a new advertising partnership with Google. In big letters it said “Are customers find YOU or your COMPETITOR?” It ran for almost a week and never was corrected.

The Herald has become its own worst enemy. After all, a newspaper depends on words to communicate the daily news. If they don’t use them properly in their first point of contact with potential customers, they aren’t likely to attract the new subscribers they desperately need.

James Toy lives in Seaside and is the proprietor of three blogs (links below). This first appeared on Mr. Toy’s Mental Notes.

The Monterey Peninsula Toy Box (Fun and useful information about the most beautiful place on Earth)

Mr. Toy’s Photography Gallery and Picture Shop (Pretty pictures of places and things)

Mr. Toy’s Mental Notes (A journal of miscellany that falls out of my head)

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Vote no campaign and protest signs for a political or social issue in an election resulting in a group demonstration protesting to stop a law  or policy made by a politician on an isolated white background.BILLS FOR SOME HOMES WOULD JUMP 43 PERCENT

Public Water Now is launching a protest to Cal Am’s recent request for a rate increase. Although Cal Am may feel under-funded, we ratepayers are under-represented and under-appreciated.

Public Water Now has settled into the role of watchdog, but now feels the need to pursue action with a stronger and stronger voice. Because we were relentless in seeking a review of the water rate structure, Cal Am recently acquiesced.  Our main interest was to compare and understand the significant differences between residential and commercial rates. We are not convinced that things are fair. And so far, neither Cal Am, nor the commercial interests, has been able to explain how the stark differences are fair.

We did get a meeting with Cal Am officials a few weeks ago on the new rate design. We were told to expect 1) removal of the allotment system, 2) a compressed rate structure, and 3) a shift of costs to the fixed meter charge and away from volume and usage charges. The community’s success at conservation has Cal Am in a tizzy. When the Herald carried the news of the specifics, I was stunned because only days earlier Cal Am had not shared with us the size of the increase (averaging 29% for residential), nor the commercial decrease (averaging 14%), nor the short time period for protest, ending on Aug. 12.

I remember a California Public Utilities Commission workshop in 2012 where Cal Am proudly announced its research showed that higher rates would not cause reduced use. The Peninsula was different, Cal Am said. Cal Am’s view of price elasticity was the opposite of other research Cal Am shared that was unanimous in concluding that the higher the price, the lower the demand. I remember calling Cal Am out on this, in front of about 25 interested and mainly local parties, about its counter-intuitive statement. I was criticized by Cal Am for doing so. It seemed wrong then, and it surely has proven that Cal Am’s research expert was totally wrong.

Cal Am has a serious under-collection of revenue because it misjudged the elasticity of demand. For a protected utility without competition, it has no experience in the business of economic dynamics. Why so many seemingly savvy local business people support Cal Am is mysterious. It boggles the mind to witness such corporate incompetence.

Cal Am’s current rate request is on this link.

My conclusions and the points of protest are these.

  1. Cal Am is using conservation, and the cease-and-desist order and drought crises, to piggyback its under-collection performance. The underlying pitch is to shore up its revenue stream. Guaranteed revenue is the point. This is an inappropriate rationale, timing and method to restructure Cal Am’s entire revenue picture.
  1. The proposed protest period is excessively short, ending Aug. 12
  1. Cal Am has called for workshops, but none has been scheduled by Cal Am or the water management district. This shortcoming undermines the deadline.
  1. The residential rate for Tier 1 users goes up 43%, far exceeding the reported average of 29%. This is where the main water conservers have ended up, so now Cal Am will get its piece of gold from them. It is also where most voters will begin to feel the heat of Cal Am costs. The more we conserve in the public interest, the more we serve the corporate interest.
  1. The commercial rate decrease is not explained, which calls into question if the commercial rates still create an incentive for conservation as advertised.
  1. The fact of under-collections proves Cal Am has not had a rational revenue structure, or it proves Cal Am is inefficient in its management.  Both should be evaluated.
  1. Cal Am revenue reports, contained in its application (link) shows plenty of income after expenses.  Where and how is Cal Am under-financed?
  1. Cal Am claims, but does not explain, how it is less costly to have these new rates.

Protests can be filed by email (below).  In correspondent to the PUC and the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, you should refer to the case number, which for now is  A.15-07-?  (The question mark is correct for now)

Public Utilities Commission: public.advisor@cpuc.ca.gov

Office of Ratepayer Advocates: richard.rauschmeier@cpuc.ca.gov

Monterey Peninsula Water Management District: arlene@mpwmd.net

Monterey Herald: mheditor@montereyherald.com

Monterey County Weekly: mail@mcweekly.com

Monterey Bay Partisan: calkinsroyal@gmail.com

Riley is managing director of Public Water Now.

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STATE HAS MADE CAL AM DESAL PROJECT A TEST CASE

OFFICIAL IN CHARGE OF EIR WAS PROJECT’S FIRST CHEERLEADER

TIME PRESSURE GIVES OFFICIALS EXCUSE TO CUT CORNERS

To hear some people tell it, one of the big problems facing Cal Am’s desalination project in Marina is criticism from those concerned about the environmental and economic impacts. Project supporters go so far as to blame the critics for the various delays that have forced repeated changes in the pre-construction timetable.

But after following the process closely for a decade now, after being counseled interminably by project proponents and reading environmental impact reports, feasibility studies and all manner of other paperwork, I have come to the opposite conclusion. I believe one of the venture’s biggest problems is that it has too much support. By that, I mean that agencies that should be honestly evaluating the project are advocating for it instead, leading to lapses in judgment and errors in execution. Peninsula business interests, meanwhile, panicked by the threat of water cutbacks, have taken a full-speed-ahead posture that could help produce a flawed and incredibly expensive answer to a problem that has other solutions.

When a previous incarnation of the desal project fell apart, it wasn’t because naysayers had put up too many obstacles. Key factors in its demise were a politically awkward management structure and the fact that money was being passed under the table in an effort to advance the project, not destroy it.

Now, proponents and participants in the project have proved again to be their own worst enemies, first by making overly optimistic projections about the composition of the water to be desalted and by ignoring glaring conflicts of interest built into the process of testing the water at the plant site north of Marina.

In defense, those in charge cite the heavy deadline pressure, with the state threatening to force untenable cuts in the Peninsula’s use of Carmel River water. They say time is so tight that they must push on or else the Peninsula’s economic well being will be in grave danger. Such thinking plays right into the hands of Cal Am, of course, which makes its money no matter how many times it has to start over.

When I was opinion page editor of the Monterey Herald, we came out in favor of desalination because of the shortage of practical alternatives. We were one of the first entities in the community to voice support. I now feel that the alternatives are becoming more attractive and that the project in its current configuration presents even graver danger to the well being of Cal Am customers on the Peninsula, who will be forced to pay for it no matter how expensive it becomes—even if it never produces a drop of drinkable water.

PENINSULA PLANT COULD BE A MODEL, FOR A PRICE

Creating additional pressures and costs, the state is using the project to test its preferred water-intake technology with minimal compensation to the Peninsula. As it stands, Peninsula water customers will be required to cover millions and millions of dollars in expenses regardless of whether the test is a success. Remember when Cal Am and its supporters were breathlessly arguing that testing of the intake method needed to begin as soon as possible, and that anyone who said otherwise was an obstructionist? That testing is on hold now for reasons that informed and objective observers could have seen coming, and the money meter continues to spin.

Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett, an almost full-time participant in the desalination process as chair of the Peninsula mayors’ water authority, agrees that the financial burden created by the experiment should be shared by state taxpayers, and he indicated he is working on it.

Tap drippingEven now, while the testing and environmental impact review are both stalled, Cal Am is going after yet another set of rate increases to help pay for the plant that may never be built and to offset income it has lost because its Peninsula customers have done such a good job of conserving water. Residential customers, who already consume and conserve some of the most expensive water in the state, would see rates increase by 29 percent under a request Cal Am filed last week with the Public Utilities Commission. At the same time, businesses would see a rate reduction of some 14 percent even though some business interests already pay discounted rates in what amounts to a reward for supporting the desal project.

Cal Am’s ability to obtain rate increase after increase from the PUC helps explain why the utility is comfortable doing whatever the state wants, no matter how illogical or expensive. In the cost-plus world of utility accounting, bigger expenses mean bigger profits.

PENINSULA IS A DESAL GUINEA PIG IN A COSTLY EXPERIMENT

Few people quarrel with the need for a desalination plant or some other means of stretching the Peninsula’s water supply. We have nearly destroyed the Carmel River, our primary water source. State officials were correct to issue a cease and desist order that will require Cal Am to greatly reduce pumping from the river in stages, which local officials are desperately attempting to postpone until the plant comes online.

Compounding the challenge significantly, the project has become an important test case that will help decide what type of water intake should be employed by other desalination facilities now on the drawing boards up and down the state.

They make it sound super complicated. It isn’t. It is worth your attention if only because it will help you understand the latest conflict of interest issue that has thrown a wrench into the process.

The easiest and least expensive intake is known as open ocean, which means pumping water straight from the ocean. The problem is that all manner of marine life is pumped into the plant along with the salty water.

Environmental groups and the various regulatory agencies greatly prefer the idea of subsurface intake, which involves pumping from below the ocean floor, using the sand and other sediment as filters to protect aquatic life. In the best case from an environmental standpoint, the wells would be drilled some distance from the shore and slanted so that their intakes would extend below the ocean floor.

Unfortunately, there is some guesswork involved in deciding exactly where to drill the so-called slant wells and there are few successful examples.  Cal Am’s project presents the state with one of the largest and most meaningful tests of the slant well technology so far.

Racks of filters in a desalination plantAlso unfortunately, not everyone involved in the project has the same agenda, and the state apparently ignored some well-established principles of how public works projects should be organized and assessed.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate that is to examine the shifting roles of the man now in charge of preparing the all-important environmental impact report for the current project. That’s Eric Zigas of the San Francisco firm of Environmental Science Associates.

Zigas may be a familiar name to those who have followed the desalination follies from the start. He also one of the architects of the previous incarnation of the desalination project–the version that devolved into a web of litigation. Before that he was a key part of the Public Utilities Commission team that decided desalination was the best solution to the Peninsula’s water problem.

PROJECT’S CHIEF ENVIRONMENTAL MONITOR STARTED WITH A VERY DIFFERENT ROLE

The current desalination proposal grew out of what became known as Plan B after plans for a dam on the Carmel River fell apart. The Legislature put the Public Utilities Commission in charge of finding an alternative and Zigas was hired to help draft the plan. He teamed with officials at UC Santa Cruz and various state and local agencies to help craft an ambitious scheme for a desalination plant at Moss Landing with a long list of environmental amenities such as a garbage-powered energy supply. The PUC then assigned Zigas to tout the plan to various Peninsula business groups, service clubs, news outlets and others. He effectively helped sell the community on desalination.

But for various reasons, most of the bells and whistles were later removed from the plan, and the project became a cumbersome joint venture between Cal Am, Monterey County and the Marina Coast Water District. Despite Zigas’ earlier role as the official cheerleader for the project, his firm was hired by the PUC to prepare the environmental impact report on that proposal before other factors caused it to be shelved.

Today, Zigas leads the environmental analysis of the process he helped initiate. Those who have worked with him say his experience on the Peninsula gives him unmatched knowledge of the issues involved, which are many. The project is complex, including a plant processing countless gallons of sea water, disposing tons of brine, and dispatching fresh water through a new network of pipelines. The expectation, of course, is that the analysis will be scientific and unbiased. A draft of the EIR is now circulating and the technical community now examining the document will determine whether has Zigas successfully switched hats. Considering how much controversy the process has created, the final EIR is very likely to be tested in court.

(When the first draft of the official environmental impact report incorrectly concluded that there were no functional agricultural wells near the plant site, Zigas briefly defended his team’s work before adopting a no-comment stance. )

eric-zigas

Eric Zigas

Zigas isn’t talking to the press, at least not to the Partisan, and he hasn’t publicly addressed his role in the latest delays.

The EIR process has been pushed back a few months because of a conflict created by the involvement of a firm that holds a patent on the slant-well technology. To help assess the test well, Zigas’ firm had brought in a company called Geoscience, headed by noted hydrologist Dennis Williams. In addition to the potential conflict presented by his patent, Williams also was working for Cal Am on the same project.

The PUC’s project manager, Andrew Barnsdale, was reassigned last week because of the revelations, which were brought to light by project critics. At the same time, a PUC administrative law judge, Gary Weatherford, issued a lengthy order requiring ESA and Cal Am to provide the contracts of everyone involved and to explain the degree to which the testing process may have been tainted.

It should not be forgotten that the Geoscience situation surfaced after the Coastal Commission suspended pumping at the test site last month because the well apparently was taking in more fresh water than anticipated. After the testing began, the groundwater table started dropping, which Cal Am blamed on agricultural pumping though it had insisted previously that there was no agricultural pumping in the area. Critics of the project had nothing to do with that.

GEORGE AND JASON LOOK AT PROJECT FROM DIFFERENT PERSPECRTIVES

George Riley has followed the project’s process as closely as anyone, and has a unique perspective. While he is an activist and head of a group that advocates public takeover of Cal Am, he also has been an accredited participant in the PUC processes as well as a member of a technical advisory committee advising Peninsula mayors on desal matters.

He agrees that the process has been marred by inter-connections.

“A quiet alliance of advocates, appearing as specialists, has emerged,” he said by email. “All are also quietly supported by the ruling state agencies. The ruling water elites at the state level have a greater role here, and has not been discussed.  And Monterey Peninsula as guinea pig is useful for them.”

Riley said Zigas and Environmental Science Associates do deserve credit, both for helping get the well testing process on track after Cal Am’s dawdling had worsened the time crunch and for pushing for well testing data to be included in the environmental impact report. The idea, Riley said, is for the final EIR to become “the vehicle for tooting the horns for slant wells” strongly favored by the various state agencies.

In Riley’s view, the fumbles that have marred the process would not be so worrisome if the state was helping to pay for the slant well testing and if the state would do more to encourage competing proposals that possibly could address the Peninsula’s water needs more quickly and less expensively.

Burnett, in a telephone interview Saturday, said he supports the PUC’s decision to call a brief timeout over the patent issue and examine where things went wrong with the test well team. He said it is important now to view Geoscience as a “proponent” rather than an arms-length analyst.

But Burnett disagrees that the process is fundamentally flawed or that the project’s management structure should be overhauled. He said he has great faith in Weatherford, the administrative law judge who is reviewing the testing conflicts.

(Burnett, by the way, has taken quite a beating politically in some quarters for his role as a leading advocate for such a controversial project. His detractors should be reminded that he helped  create a financing package for the plant that should save ratepayers millions of dollars over time and managed almost single-handedly to impose some level of public oversight over the project despite serious resistance from Cal Am.)

Antique water fountain, detail of a source for drinking water, drinking waterSUCCESS SHOULDN’T REQUIRE SETTLING FOR SECOND-RATE

From where I sit, it seems clear that the PUC needs to do more than study the known conflicts and then continue on the same course if this project is to be salvaged. Soonest, it needs to join with local politicians and work with the State Water Resources Control Board to eliminate the artificial pressure caused by the cease-and-desist order deadlines before they result in a hopelessly flawed and expensive project.

Barnsdale, the now departed PUC project manager, is a bureaucrat, a permit processor, not a construction or desalination expert. His replacement needs to be someone with real world experience rather than a purely regulatory background.

The PUC also needs to do what it can to support alternative measures such as wastewater recycling and stepped up conservation and to take a closer look at the competing proposals, the Moss Landing plans being pursued by Nader Agha and the DeepWater group, to see if they could effectively supplant some or all of the Cal Am project.

Obviously, the PUC also needs to take a long look at Cal Am’s rate structure for the Peninsula and drill into the company’s argument for two classes of rates, one set for the relatively helpless residential customers and a discounted set for the more politically powerful business class.

Finally, Cal Am and its supporters need to stop attempting to vilify anyone who raises questions about the process. All major public works projects encounter problems and this one is  more complex than most. Clearly, outside scrutiny will make it stronger, not weaker. As a community, there is strong agreement that we are obligated to stop abusing the Carmel River and unless someone works some magic and soon, we seem to be stuck with desal as the solution. That does not mean, however, that we must accept a project that carries a bloated pricetag and creates as many problems as it solves.

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Psst. Want to hear a secret? Well OK then, just don’t tell the papers or anyone at Monterey City Hall. Knowledge is power and loose lips, and all that.

Here goes: At least 12 people have applied for appointment to the Monterey Planning Commission and there’s a good chance a couple of them will be appointed next Tuesday.  And there is quite a behind-the-scenes effort underway at the moment to make sure one of the favorites doesn’t make it.

The applicants are:

  • Paul W. Davis
  • Mike Dawson
  • Sharon Dwight
  • Daniel Fletcher
  • Thomas Hamrick
  • Terry Latasa
  • Bill McCrone
  • Stephen Millich
  • Luis Osorio
  • David Stocker
  • Susan Theodore
  • Kathleen Wall

Davis, Osorio, Stocker and McCrone are on the commission now and have been for a while. There hasn’t been much public discussion of the applicants, largely because Mayor Clyde Roberson thinks the applications are confidential. Fortunately for the forces of light and common sense, they actually are public record.

Normally, Planning Commission appointments in Monterey receive scant attention. That’s partly because the commissioners tend to stay put and openings don’t occur that often. Mayor Roberson is changing that up, however. He and the other member of the City Council’s nominating committee, Alan Haffa, sent emails to a couple of the incumbents a few weeks back, politely but clearly suggesting they look for some other way to be of service. Davis and Stocker got the notes but not the message for they both submitted applications for reappointment.

The mayor’s note said he thinks there should be limits on how long commissioners serve. Most of the rest of the council seems to agree on that though one council member, Libby Downey, thinks there should be some policy set on that question or, at the very least, an open discussion and maybe even some talk about qualifications and that sort of thing. When it came time for a second to that motion last week, council chambers got really quiet. The other four council members surely had reasons for their silence but they weren’t sharing.

Anyway, the bookie who services City Hall says the odds are good that Stocker and Fletcher are history, and by that, he doesn’t mean the Historic Preservation Commission, though there are applicants for that as well. (Carole Dawson, Charles Denley, Laurie Hambaro, Jennifer Lambert-Hamrick and Jerilynn Smith-Crivello.)

The odds-on favorites to fill in for Stocker and Fletcher as of Wednesday were Mike Dawson and Sharon Dwight, both of whom have been exceedingly active in their neighborhood organizations. Dawson has run for office several times and come close. He’s a nice guy, exceptionally knowledgable on city affairs.

Dwight has been a tireless advocate for neighborhood funding and is well known in and around City Hall. Too well known, according to some.

Back before Roberson was mayor, Mayor Chuck Della Sala sent a strongly worded letter to Dwight, calling her down for creating “an unwelcome and inappropriate confrontation” with planning commissioners in June 2014. Read it for yourself.

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The letter started making the rounds Wednesday. I got it from a Twitter posting by Herald reporter Phil Molnar. There’s more to the story than that but I’ll let him tell it.

The good news is that McCrone is likely to stick around even though he is one of the City Hall’s all-time top feather rufflers, agitating as he has against sweetheart lease deals at Fisherman’s Wharf. Coming up soon is a political fight over the amount of parking near the wharf and losing someone with McCrone’s knowledge and stamina now might have signaled that the public was going to come out on the short end. Roberson would rather appoint just about anyone other than McCrone but in politics timing is everything.

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See update at end. Also new, PUC Judge Gary Weatherford’s order detailing true information he wants from Cal Am and others about the latest conflict of interest.

 

There were some nice surprises in Jim Johnson’s story today in the Monterey Herald. The subject was desalination but it was not about delays or cost increases, at least not directly.

Johnson reported that Public Utilities Commission project manager Andrew Barnsdale is being relieved from the responsibility of overseeing the Cal Am desal project on the Peninsula. There were two surprises right there.

One was that there was a specific someone at the PUC who was responsible for the desal project. The impression had been created long ago that no one was in charge unless it was Cal Am. Whenever anything big happened at the PUC level, it always seemed to be the work of an administrative law judge who was allowed no contact with anyone except large law firms. Some of those administrative law judges seem pretty bright, but they’re pretty much limited to ruling on matters put in front of them by others who may or may not qualify for that distinction.

So someone named Barnsdale was in charge? Good to know. His name had come up along the way, but it hadn’t stirred much interest in the growing community of desal watchers locally for several reasons. First, his background is mostly in environmental law, electricity and permitting issues, not water or construction. Second, he had responsibilities for other significant projects around the state. Apparently the PUC thinks that overseeing an extremely important and tremendously challenging $400 million-plus desal project is a part-time job for someone without desal experience.

Dollar bills close-up - Money keeps silentAlso under surprises but in the “good surprises” category was that whoever Barnsdale reports to took action upon learning of a conflict of interest situation. It involves testing of the well technology that Cal Am intends to use. It turned out that the testing was essentially being carried out by one fellow who was being paid by most everyone involved in the effort, and who stood to make more money the longer the technology seemed to be working. Among those he was working for was the PUC and Cal Am. And the company preparing the environmental impact report on the project.

There are a couple of surprises contained in the preceding paragraph. No, not the conflict of interest part. The conflicts were apparent months ago to just about everyone involved, everyone except the PUC apparently. The surprises are that the PUC either didn’t know or pretended not to know something that should have been obvious to anyone with a passing interest in the subject, that it admitted to recognizing the problem eventually and, probably most surprising of all, that it did something about it.

UPDATE: Following the original post of this article, Monterey water activist George Riley weighed in with a comment, see below, strongly supportive of Barnsdale. Considering George’s superior knowledge of this project, the process and the players, this very strongly suggests that Barnsdale is being scapegoated. Stay turned for more on this.

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Pitch coming right at you

Jim Tunney, former pro football referee and resident sports moralist at the Monterey Herald, infrequently casts his eye toward baseball. That makes sense because baseball is really the antithesis of football.

Football players steel themselves in an extraordinary amount of protective pads, sleeves, braces and helmets that increasingly make them resemble malicious beings sent from the future to mess with Arnold Schwarzenegger because of his botched governorship or some less serious offense.

Baseball players, meanwhile, use only a couple pieces of armor — batting helmets to protect the tops of their heads while at bat, and protective cups, usually warn only by the players in the infield (including pitchers and catchers) to protect their external reproductive organs.

Of course, one could say baseball caps offer protection from the sun for players’ foreheads, but so do sun bonnets, and you’ll never see a backup quarterback on an NFL sideline working the headphones and clipboard wearing a sun bonnet backwards. If you did, you could be sure the half-time show analysts would riff on that for most of their spots, while overlooking things like the score of the game, the concussion count, the torn-up knee count, the separated-shoulder count and their judging of the first half’s slo-mo, sack-dancing contestants.

Tunney wants baseball games to move faster, and he proposes a few ideas on ways to accomplish this.

As any baseball devotee knows, every now and then bizarre and delightful things happen when a nerve-wracked relief pitcher tries to intentionally walk a hitter. Such aberrations lend credence to the axiom that every baseball game produces something you’ve never seen before.

Still, I will give Tunney this one. But instead of just directing the intentional-walk recipient to first base without lobbing four baseballs far from the strike zone, I propose making the play exciting.

Strap a jet pack and drag chute on the back of the player and fire him toward first base. If there is a malfunction and the supercharged player crashes through the right-field wall, check to see if he is an organ donor and then declare the game over, pending repair of the right-field wall. This has the potential to knock hours off the length of baseball games.

As to Tunney’s suggestion to do away with the home-run trot for a batter who “goes yard,” that would leave a gaping hole in the heart of baseball. Fans stand and cheer while they watch a home-run hitter from their home club run round the bases. It’s good for the circulation.

When a visiting-team hitter crushes one, fans boo lustily, which is very good for the lungs, or they crumple into a ball and cry uncontrollably, which is very cathartic and instructive on how to deal with life setbacks.

Hell, Jim — I’m no doctor, but you may as well reduce the number of bases from four to three, or require only two strikes for a strikeout. This would send hordes of baseball-stat nerds completely over the edge, and unruly bands likely would take over many American cities. This would be a catastrophe.

Tunney should turn his attention to speeding up football. The average NFL game has devolved into 11 minutes of action tucked into nearly four hours of television commercials, shots of coaches looking over multiple pages of possible plays, official replays of nearly every play, and “game beaks” featuring something exciting from a game you are not watching.

I have a few ideas for Tunney to chew on about ways to accelerate the numbing slog football games have become.

  1. Require hurry-up offenses all the time. If a player is hurt, keep playing like in soccer, and cart the injured off the field while all the other players are gasping for breath somewhere else on the field.
  2. Eliminate all replays, either by challenge or by rule. Let the call on the field stand, and quit turning NFL fans into a bunch of infantile whiners who can’t deal with it when a call goes against their team. Man up, for Pete’s sake.

By the way, the preceding comment was not meant to imply doing anything for Pete Carroll’s sake. His play-calling at the last Super Bowl — which only took 6 hours to complete, I believe — should have been labeled hazardous to mental health. Beast mode, Pete!

  1. Require any receiver who leaps into the stands after catching a touchdown pass to remain in the stands and to buy the next round of nachos and beer. His team will play a player down until everyone in his section finishes their beer.
  2. Do away with the frigging two-minute warning. There are more clocks in football stadiums than watches in Switzerland, and everyone knows when there are about two minutes left.
  3. Do away with the extra point altogether, and require all foreign-born place kickers to voluntarily self-deport or seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy.
  4. Eliminate half-time. Force Jimmy Johnson to sell men’s hair products at a Dallas mall, where he can talk football until he is blue in the face, but we won’t have to listen.

I have a few more ideas about speeding up football, but they are being pushed out of the way by a wonderful idea on how to speed up this col….

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B2L4F4oIIAA0MME.jpg-large

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.

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