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Little controversy in Livingston emails


Published: Nov. 8, 2013

THE CONTENTS of dozens of emails which the City of Carmel fought to hide — but which were released to The Pine Cone Tuesday after the attorney who heavily redacted earlier versions was taken off the job — revealed the concerns of a woman heavily involved in the operation and preservation of her city, but little else.

The correspondence between former councilwoman and Carmel Residents Association President Barbara Livingston and city administrator Jason Stilwell, as well as with Mayor Jason Burnett, focused on code enforcement, planning issues, recommendations of candidates to serve on city boards, and some of the chatter around town regarding recent hires and investigations into longtime employees, leaving wonder about why they had been hidden in the first place.

Livingston, who at first also refused to let The Pine Cone see her emails, changed her mind at the same time the city did.

“I am in agreement that the City of Carmel, in consultation with the city attorney and myself, will release the emails exchanged between me and city officials,” Livingston said in an email to The Pine Cone this week. “Newspaper editors and readers will see that these messages are nothing more than the observations and thoughts of a private citizen who deeply loves her beloved village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. I will, of course, continue to communicate with the city and urge fellow citizens to do the same.”

Different attorney, different results

The change of heart came after Burnett said last week that attorney Heather Coffman, who works for the San Francisco law firm of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, had failed to uphold the council’s promise to interpret the California Public Records Act broadly, in favor of the public’s right to observe the city’s business. Stilwell began submitting all requests for public documents to Coffman several months ago, instead of running them past city attorney Don Freeman. The result was that much was hidden — including all sorts of things that shouldn’t have been.

Released Tuesday, with very few redactions (such as private email addresses and the like), the emails between Stilwell and Livingston address issues such as sign regulations, fairy lights lit year-round, houses being used as illegal short-term rentals, right-of-way encroachments, negotiations about the future of Flanders Mansion, and the possibility of selling unused city art to help pay for renovation of the Forest Theater and the city’s 2016 centennial celebration.

Her emails to Burnett were more personal and articulated her worries about the current state of the city. In early September, she encouraged him to introduce all the new directors to the community at a meeting that “should be very schmoozy, very fuzzy, very warm” — which was eventually done at Sunset Center in mid-October.

“Put a human face on these people. Tell everyone how to contact the city with concerns — everything through Jason Stilwell? Is that really a good idea? Looks very controlled,” she wrote. “I’d invite [Pine Cone publisher] Paul Miller too. You might even address the commute of <redacted> and <redacted>. Explain why they don’t move here, live here.” (She was likely referring to administrative services director Sue Paul and public services director Sharon Friedrichsen, both of whom were hired this year by Stilwell and lived in Southern California.)

“I don’t know how you will explain the employees on administrative leave, but that is a problem that needs addressing,” she said, adding that he should also say that “you will be using local legal firms from now on.”

In an email entitled, “Confidential,” she began, “Hi Jason. This email is just for you. I’m deleting after sending.” In it, she articulates some of the personality conflicts in the centennial committee that includes former Mayor Sue McCloud and retired businessman Merv Sutton, “rumors and disquiet about the <redacted>,” chatter about the city paying for commute costs, employees living outside the area “not being vested in the village” and being friends of Stilwell’s, and the lack of transparency in the monthly check register — an issue that has since been addressed by the addition of a very basic column indicating what the expenses are for. She also suggested the city hire a PR person “to anticipate controversial things, to meet with the press, to issue press releases about what is happening in the city.” (Former longtime journalist Lewis Leader has been hired to fill this role.)

“I am maintaining a strong defense for the city but feel I am losing the battle,” she concluded.

Other correspondence with Burnett included an inquiry whether he had considered joining a campaign called “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” and suggestions about candidates to serve on the city’s boards and commissions, with the idea that they might eventually run for city council.

“For my part, I would like to congratulate Barbara for being quite a conscientious citizen,” said Pine Cone publisher Paul Miller. “Her advice is certainly being taken seriously at city hall, but there isn’t really anything in her emails to raise eyebrows, and they obviously should never have been hidden in the first place.”

“Thank you to our staff for straightening out the situation, following city council policy, and releasing what our outside law firm should have released a month ago,” Burnett told The Pine Cone Thursday. “It is pretty clear why this law firm will no longer work on our public record requests.”