Secrecy at city hall reaches new heights
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
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
She cites several legal decisions that she believes authorize
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
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
“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.”