The Jonathan Club, which for years has stared down accusations that it excludes minorities from its membership, was ordered by the California Coastal Commission on Thursday to adopt a non-discriminatory policy before it can expand its Santa Monica beachfront facility onto state-owned land.
At a public hearing, the commission voted 9 to 3 to approve the club's expansion of an existing parking lot and paddle tennis courts, but it cited the Coastal Act in adding a condition that all members of the public be given equal opportunity of access to the club.
The club would lease public beach land to expand the courts and lease state land adjacent to its building to add to its parking lot.
"We're saying that if you're going to take (58,000 square feet) of public-trust land, you're going to have to use the facility in such a way that a Tom Bradley can be a member, that a Dianne Feinstein can be a member, or that my kid can be a member," commission member Marshall Grossman told club attorneys.
Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles, is black; Feinstein, the mayor of San Francisco, is Jewish.
"To say that public access (to the beach) along the side of the building is good enough only rubs salt in the wounds of people peering over the walls."
The commission imposed the condition, which was not a staff recommendation, after hearing testimony from David Lehrer, attorney for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and spokesman for a coalition of Jewish, Latino, Asian, black and women's groups.
Lehrer told the commission that although it is "nearly impossible" to determine the club's actual membership policy, "when the corporate and political elite meet for lunch or dinner at a downtown social club and there is a longstanding policy to exclude visible minorities, a message is sent out to the community at large."
Spokesmen for the club refused to answer commission members' questions about their membership policy. After the decision, club member John Shiner said, "We felt then and feel now that it's totally irrelevant to these proceedings." He said the club would consider its options before deciding how to respond to the commission's decision.
Club members historically have been closemouthed about the club's policies and membership, preferring to ride out the occasional storms of accusations.
In 1982, the Community Redevelopment Agency barred its employees from conducting any business at the club, charging members with discrimination, and several law firms, banks and government agencies have policies boycotting the club.
Successive Santa Monica City Councils tried to get the club to make adjustments, and former Councilwoman Cheryl Rhoden once proclaimed that the club would get "not one grain of sand" without changing its ways.
Shiner disputed the assertion of Deputy Atty. Gen. Anthony Summers on Thursday that the commission had legal precedent to require the condition. Summers called the issue "a very thorny problem" but said the commission would be acting in accordance with federal and state restrictions on publicly owned land.
In addition, commission staff members pointed to Coastal Act provisions that call on the commission to protect the coastal zone as a "resource of vital and enduring interest to all the people."
Not all the commission members were persuaded by Summers' position. In a two-hour debate, several argued that the commission is the wrong forum to deal with discrimination issues.
Commission members also expressed consternation that other governmental agencies that previously considered the proposed expansion had skirted the discrimination issue. Chairman Melvin Nutter said, however, that he thinks the commission acted on its legal basis, not out of responsibility as "court of last resort."
Earlier this year, the Santa Monica Planning Commission voted to approve a permit for the Jonathan Club's expansion after settlement of a lawsuit over the boundary lines between state-owned beach and beach owned by the club. That settlement also allowed the club to lease adjacent land and beachfront land from the state.
The Planning Commission was advised by the Santa Monica city attorney's office to consider the discrimination issue separately from the planning issues. One commissioner called the presence of the club "abhorrent" and, after approving the expansion, the Planning Commission voted to send a letter to the Coastal Commission stating that the club's membership policy might affect the public's right of access. The Santa Monica City Council voted the letter down.
Council members were "deciding not to rock the boat," said council member David Epstein. "The council didn't want to mess up the case settlement."
Epstein said he hopes the Coastal Commission's move will persuade people inside and outside the club to put pressure on the club leadership to draft a non-discriminatory policy.