I pride myself on being San Leandro’s most infamous atheist. I came into local prominence a couple of years ago when I challenged the San Leandro School District to stop teaching overtly religious songs in school. I had been appalled to find out that McKinley Elementary School‘s evangelical Christian music teacher, Kathy Maier, had made my 6-year old learn and sing the song “Silent Night” which praises Jesus as God. Not kosher in my book. So when I read a letter on last Thursday’s San Leandro Times accusing the city of establishing religion by allowing the Calvary Chapel church/religious group to hold services at the newly opened Senior Center, I had to investigate what was going on. And apparently it’s much ado about nothing.
Calvary Chapel is a small religious group started/run by the Cortez family, who relocated their ministry to San Leandro from the city of Guadalupe in late 2009. They are fundamentalist neo-Pentecostals (competition for Faith Fellowship?) but they don’t seem to make too big a deal out of speaking in tongues. They’ve been meeting at the Marina Community Center since they started, and apparently now they are moving to the Senior Center. I don’t know if that’s because the Senior Center is more centrally located or if they were able to see the signs predicting the end of the Marina center.
Meeting rooms at the Marina and Senior Centers are available for rental by any member of the community. Non-profit groups, apparently including churches, are charged reduced non-profit rates during non-peak hours and regular rates during the peak hours that Calvary Chapel mostly reserves. Any group is allowed to use these facilities, provided they pay the appropriate fees & deposit, have insurance and don’t have a history of trashing the facilities.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t really want the government to have to inquire as to what every group who rents a room at a public building is going to do in the room. Whether a group of people want a room to hold masturbation workshops, have a Barbie convention or pray to imaginary cosmic entities, it’s really nobody’s business but their own.
The fees that Calvary Chapel pays the city for the use of its facilities, moreover, help tremendously in keeping the Senior Center open. And who can complain about that?
Councilman Jim Prola seems to get around a lot – from mosquito abatement meetings to water plants. At the end of each City Council meeting, Council members recount the public meetings and events they attended in the previous fortnight. Here is Prola’s account from the April 4th meeting:
(If you don’t get it, this reference may help you)
San Leandro is about to appoint a new City Manager to lead the city, hopefully effectively and for many years to come. An ad hoc committee composed by Mayor Stephen Cassidy and Council members Reed and Souza narrowed the field of applicants from 30 to five. The Council won’t disclose their identities – ostensibly to protect the applicants’ current jobs – though hopefully demographic information on them will be forthcoming. Cassidy has not heeded my suggestion that he appoint a citizens ad hoc committee to give input on who among these candidates would work best for the city, but he is soliciting the community’s opinion albeit in a very limited manner.
For one, he set up an online questionnaire asking very general questions as to what San Leandrans want in a city manager. Cassidy has not explained how the information from these questionnaires will be put to use, however.
Cassidy will also be holding a Town Hall meeting (Sat., April 30, 9-11 a.m. Lecture Hall at Main Library) for citizen’s to provide their input on this issue. For that input to be useful, however, it is essential that the citizens attending be asked real questions concerning the particular characteristics of the five final candidates. For example, it would be of little use of citizens to tell the Mayor that they want a Latino or Asian city manager, if none of the five final candidates are of such ethnic origin. Similarly, if none of the candidates live or are willing to live in San Leandro, it won’t help the Mayor at this point to hear how important this issue is to the community. It is thus essential that Cassidy and his fellow Council members take a careful look at the characteristics of these five candidates and then ask the community specific questions about what qualities about them they would find more compelling. Would we rather have someone with more experience or with a commitment to stay in San Leandro for longer? Do we want someone who has worked in City government all his life, or would we prefer her to have business or non-profit experience? Do we want someone who is known for their financial skills – given our dismal budget situation – or someone with superior management skills? Only people with access to the candidates will know what the right questions to ask are.
The five candidates won’t be interviewed by the City Council until after the Town Hall meeting, so this is also a good opportunity for Cassidy to solicit community input about what sort of questions we want Cassidy to put to the candidates – and what types of answers would make us happiest. I will personally not be able to be at this Town Hall – it conflicts with the California Democrats Convention – but I hope that many people will attend, that the discussion will be relevant and useful and that the City Council will take the input it generates seriously.
(Note, to understand the particulars of this case please read A primer on the Faith Fellowship v. San Leandro lawsuit first).
The 9th circuit court of appeals has just denied the City of San Leandro’s petition for an en banc hearing of the apellate decision against the City on the Faith Fellowship case. None of the 29 9th circuit judges requested to hear the case. That is of little surprise, the petition not only had no merit but was terribly and insultingly written. It was so bad that I’ve argued that it should be grounds to fire Meyers Nave, the law firm that represents the city and wrote the petition. The City Council will be meeting next Monday in closed session to discuss what to do next. They have three choices: appeal to the Supreme Court, go to trial or settle.
I daresay that City Attorney Jayne Williams will recommend the first option. A Supreme Court appeal will mean that Meyers Nave gets to charge the City even more money on attorney’s fees. It also allows Williams to continue telling the City Council that the her firm’s advise to deny Faith Fellowship’s rezoning petition was correct: the 9th circuit just got it wrong. Most members of the San Leandro City Council are not very astute legally and may not realize that not only are the chances of the Supreme Court taking the case minute, but in all likelihood the current conservative, religious-loving Supreme Court would not side with the city against the church. It is thus possible that the City Council may go along with Williams. An appeal would slow down the case, putting off paying the church’s damages for some years, but it will increase the legal costs for the city.
Going to trial presents significant legal risks to the city. The facts are with the Church: former City Manager John Jermanis himself said that there we no other properties suitable to Faith Fellowship’s needs in San Leandro. The City led the church on for a year, suggesting it would let it use the property if the church jumped through enough hoops, only to deny them the use of the property after they had bought it and for what looks like arbitrary reasons. I think a jury, looking at the facts, is likely to agree with that conclusion. But even if it doesn’t, the church still gets to re-appeal the case to the 9th circuit on “equal protection” grounds, and the 9th circuit panel that heard the case originally hinted that it would side with the church. Personally, I think the substantial issues on this case are already lost: the city violated RLUIPA and the church is entitled to “appropriate relief”. The question the city should be addressing is what that means.
RLUIPA provides that “a person may assert a violation of this Act as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government”. It also provides for attorney fees’ for the prevailing plaintiff. While it is universally accepted that this “appropriate relief” includes injunctive relief and that the court could order the City to allow the church to operate on the Catalina St. property, Faith Fellowship no longer owns said property. It was forced to sell it last year, for $2.5 million under what it paid for, when it could no longer afford to pay its mortgage and run its existing facilities at the same time. Faith Fellowship has indicated that at this point what it seeks are monetary damages, the $1.2 million that it made in mortgage payments while it owned the property and perhaps even the $2.5 million it lost when it sold it.
But it is not clear that RLUIPA allows for money damages. While some courts have found that it does, following the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Franklin v. Gwinett, the US Supreme Court just ruled in Sossamon v. Texas (in a case involving prisoners’ religious rights) that the phrase “‘[a]ppropriate relief’ is open-ended and ambiguous about what types of relief it includes” and that, at least in the case of lawsuits against states (which, unlike municipalities, enjoy sovereign immunity) it should not be interpreted to include monetary damages. Now, because the Sossamon court ruled on very specific circumstances, it’s not clear how lower courts will interpret the decision. They may very well conclude that it would be inconsistent to read RLUIPA’s grant of “appropriate relief” to include monetary damages when the state actor is a municipality or county, but to not include them when the actor is a state. Or they may decide that the fact that Supreme Court specifically differentiated Sossamon from Franklin means that Franklin applies to non-sovereign RLUIPA defendants. Personally, I think the latter is the more compelling interpretation of the Sossamon decision, but I think that the City (if it hired a good law firm to represent it) could make a viable argument that “appropriate relief” does not include monetary damages. At the very least, the City should be able to convince the court to limit those damages.
But litigation is expensive. The City admits that it has spent $450,000 pursuing this case so far, though the real amount may indeed be higher. It will likely be on the hook for Faith Fellowship’s attorney fees as well – which may very well be higher than the city’s. A trial, even if purely on the money issues, and the appeals that would follow it, would prove terribly expensive. Personally, I think the city needs to do whatever it can to settle the case – as long as Faith Fellowship is reasonable on its demands. Now, the City Attorney should go to the City Council and put the figures on the table: this is how much we’ve spent so far, this is how much we’re on the hook for the Church’s attorney’s fees, this is how much more we’re likely to have to spend if we go to trial and lose. Then, based on those costs and on Faith Fellowship’s damages, the city should make a reasonable settlement offer. Without knowing those figures, I’d say something like $1.5 million plus attorney’s fees seems reasonable. City help in identifying and rezoning a suitable property should be part of the deal as well. It would behoove Faith Fellowship to accept such a settlement as well: they could get the money now rather than in a few years. That would mean they could go on and buy a new property now – when prices are still low – and be able to move soon rather than years from now, when all the litigation would be finally over. I can only hope that both sides will see reason.
Many of us who live in San Leandro are frustrated about the lack of shopping, dining and cultural opportunities in the city. Even during the economic boom early in the century, San Leandro languished. Our downtown is practically a ghost town, devoid of compelling shopping and entertainment venues. The only reason why anyone goes downtown at all is to go shopping at Safeway or get money at one of the remaining banks. An empty downtown wouldn’t be a problem if there were other more alive sectors of the city, but that’s not the case either. San Leandro has a myriad of low-end chain stores, a newly renovated but deserted mall and a wonderful library – but there is nowhere in town where to go for a stroll and do some window or actual shopping, no place that can compare to 4th street in Berkeley, Rockridge, Piedmont Ave., Park St. in Alameda or even downtown Pleasanton or Hayward.
The excuse City Hall has given is that San Leandro doesn’t have the demographics to attract high end stores or restaurants. And while it’s true that San Leandro’s median household income is of under $60,000 a year, other towns with similar demographics manage to have vibrant business districts. A vibrant business district (combined with more effort putting into improving our schools) would attract a higher demographic to the city, which in turn would attract more businesses.
I think a great part of the problem is that City Hall is not doing its job of trying to attract businesses. The City spent tons of redevelopment money on the MacArthur Project Area, but has done little to promote it to businesses that might actually attract customers and bring some life into the city. For example, Vila Cereja (formerly Jake’s Lion), a pretty large restaurant in that area, is up for sale as the owner wants to retire. This would be a wonderful location for an East Bay branch of a San Francisco restaurant. The venue was remodeled recently and while it’s a little quirky (for example, it doesn’t have any windows), that could be turned into an advantage. Its large banquet room could be used as a jazz/world music club – somewhere for grown up entertainment. It’s right next to the freeway, so it could easily draw customers from nearby cities. All the City has to do is find someone to invest in the business (and it’s very reasonably priced, Jake just wants to retire) and then promote it. The idea being that once people outside San Leandro start thinking of San Leandro as a “place to go”, other businesses will think of settling here as well.
As for downtown, the City is already paying the Downtown Farmers Market $15,000 a year to operate. It’s a wonderful FM and it seems very popular, but the City has no strategy on how to use it to revitalize downtown. One type of business I think could do well, both in conjunction with the farmers’ market and other downtown businesses, is a nice wine/cheese shop. It could be located in the space next to Le Soleil, which has been empty for years. It would have to offer some moderately priced wines for the local crowd and some unusual, attractive selections – to encourage oenophiles from nearby cities to come by. The City could start by contacting established San Francisco wine shops and pitch the idea that they open a second branch in San Leandro.
In short, what the City’s business developer needs to start doing is developing business: identifying businesses that would do well given our demographics/location/market trends and approaching those businesses to come to town. They should concentrate on established name-brand businesses, who already have local notoriety, so that San Leandro can gain from their cache, and sell them on our great central East Bay location, starving (if limited) middle-class Berkeley-refugee base, low rents and generally easy parking. They are not coming to us, so let’s go to them.
The city of San Leandro will be hiring a new City Manager shortly. They’ve published a questionnaire online, asking San Leandro residents vague questions about what they want in a City Manager. No word as to what they will do with the information. One question that I think is particularly important is that of where the city manager should live. By law, the City cannot impose a residency requirement on the City Manager – but it can hire someone who lives in San Leandro or shows a strong inclination to move here. But should we care?