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Secrecy at city hall reaches new heights

- CRA president exchanges hidden messages with mayor, city administrator

By MARY SCHLEY

Published: October 25, 2013

A REQUEST from The Pine Cone for emails between Carmel Residents Association President Barbara Livingston, city administrator Jason Stilwell and Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett was refused last week because the city considers much of their correspondence too sensitive or inflammatory to allow the public to read it.

The Pine Cone asked for the emails in September, under the provisions of the California Public Records Act, which clearly requires that government officials release emails, letters, documents and other written records that are about official business.

But the city responded to The Pine Cone’s requests by providing heavily redacted copies of approximately 75 emails dated between early July and the end of September. Many of them had their entire contents redacted. The coverups were made in white, so it’s impossible to tell how much writing was hidden.

In her Oct. 15 cover letter explaining the city’s refusal to provide the documents, San Francisco attorney Heather Coffman said the people who wrote and received the emails had a “privacy right” that outweighed the public’s right to see them.

“Please note that personal identifying information contained in response to the PRA requests has been redacted in order to protect the privacy interests at issue. For example, correspondence of members of the public detailing their concerns as citizens have been redacted because the public interest in disclosure of this correspondence is clearly outweighed by the interest in nondisclosure to avoid a chilling effect on the public.”

She cites several legal decisions that she believes authorize her redactions.

In other words, if a member of the public — even one who served as a city councilwoman for 12 years and is president of a well established and outspoken residents group — says anything to the mayor or city administrator about a code violation, a neighbor problem, a businessman with whom she disagrees, a person she believes should be appointed to one of the decision-making bodies or practically any other matter, no member of the public is entitled to know about it. The citizen — even though she’s acting as a lobbyist for a special interest group — could even make secret agreements with city officials.

An Aug. 27 email from Livingston to Stilwell, for instance, contains no subject heading and has all of its contents, except the salutation and sign-off, blocked out. In response, Stilwell wrote, “I’m familiar with the issues you raise.”

A Sept. 6 email from Livingston to Burnett, entitled, “Meeting with you,” has its entire contents blanked out.

On Sept. 12, Livingston wrote to Stilwell, “Someone forwarded this message to me about <redacted>.” On Sept. 15, Stilwell wrote, “Also, to follow up on the subject of the original email <redacted>. He was provided a copy of our ordinance.”

On July 29, Stilwell wrote to Livingston, “Thanks Barbara, this is very helpful. I’ll let you know where we are on the code compliance <redacted>.” The email to which he was responding had a blank subject head and all but “Hi Jason,” and “Barbara,” blanked out.

Partially redacted emails from Sept. 3 and Aug. 30 involve names and contact information for candidates for the historic resources board and forest and beach commission.

Some of the information taken out of the emails is cryptic. On Sept. 3, Burnett wrote to Livingston, “Barbara, I was not at the city council meeting when this was discussed, so I don’t know exactly what was discussed (I’m reviewing the tape but haven’t made it through yet.) It isn’t clear what the mention of <redacted> in the opening means, but I’ll look into it. Thanks, Jason.” He was responding to a Sept. 2 email from Livingston in which all of the text is blocked, so it’s impossible to know what is being referenced, but the statement she is asking about was made in an open meeting that was also broadcast on TV and online.

The city also redacted trivial items and information everybody already knows. For example, in an Aug. 21 email, Burnett asks Livingston if he can attend the CRA’s Fiesta in the Forest along with two other people, whose names are blanked out. He refers to his mom, so evidently one of those names is Nancy, and the other is perhaps his wife, Mel.

“Do you know who I should contact regarding tickets to tomorrow’s Fiesta in the Forest? I believe/hope that <redacted> and I have RSVP’d already, and I’d like to add my mom <redacted> to the list,” he wrote. “We can bring cash or a check to the door.”

Messages The Pine Cone was allowed to see involved Livingston’s suggestion to add page numbers to the table of contents in the agenda packet, the CRA’s offer to host an Octoberfest party for city employees, and conversations about the Centennial 2016 committee, on which Livingston sits with former Mayor Sue McCloud and former Nielsen Bros. Market owner Merv Sutton.

Emails between Livingston and Burnett and her and Stilwell also focus on Covered California and a health reform call center, the city’s decision to create a traffic committee comprising staff rather than citizens, the status of two lease proposals for Flanders Mansion, the possible existence of a time capsule to be opened in 2016 and a report about 2016 created when Jean Grace was mayor, and how the council would handle an event proposed by restaurateur and former mayoral candidate Rich Pepe.

But even within those emails are eliminations, including names and email addresses of senders and recipients. In one, councilman Ken Talmage’s name and email address are blocked out in the “to” field, but the email is signed by him.

When asked if she would provide the copies herself, Livingston said she deletes every email as soon as she is done reading it. When asked if she would give permission to the city to release full copies of the messages, she simply replied, “No, thanks.”

The city’s refusal to release the full emails came just five days after the council “reaffirmed” the city’s policy “that the Public Records Act be construed in favor of public disclosure.”

That agreement came after the city would not provide planning director Rob Mullane’s resume. It has also refused to convey details of the investigation of IT manager Steve McInchak and his assistant, Rose Franzen; any information about why former deputy city clerk Molly Laughlin, former building official John Hanson and former children’s library employee Linda MacDonald were fired (or whether they were fired); what McInchak and Franzen have been paid while they’re on leave; and other matters.

“The people of Carmel and the whole Monterey Peninsula depend on us for news about what’s happening at city hall,” Pine Cone publisher Paul Miller said. “After all these years, it’s extremely weird for the city to start hiding so many things.”