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Yorba Linda Church Holds Sway Over City, Critics Say

Times Staff Writer

Some Yorba Linda residents are wondering whether their City Council has forgotten the part of the Constitution guaranteeing the separation of church and state.

To hear them tell it, the city’s leaders are so cozy with the most powerful church in town that they afford it special treatment, most recently in the form of a 55-year “sweetheart” lease on 33 acres of prime real estate for a Christian high school.

It’s a charge the council denies, arguing that the lease is in the best interests of the city and that the church -- Yorba Linda Friends -- is simply a good neighbor equal to any other.

“We are very proud of all of the places of worship in Yorba Linda,” Mayor Ken Ryan said, “and they are all treated the same.” In making development decisions, he said, “we consider the neighbors and other issues, and this project is no different. We try to help all of our religious facilities out, but not at the expense of residents.”

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Yet the council’s handling of the school, critics contend, proves something they’ve long suspected: The church has too much power.

Two council members have ties to the church, and candidates have long sought its influence to get into office. A picture of the then-pastor was featured in a late 1990s campaign mailer. And Yorba Linda Friends Church is one of the largest landowners in town.

John Gullixson, a former councilman who says he got “a tremendous amount of support” from the church during his 12 years in office -- including contributions from members of its governing council -- described it as “more of an interest group in the sense of its sheer size. You’d go to the Rotary Club, you’d go to the Chamber [of Commerce] -- it got to the point where a substantial percentage of the people attending those events were members of the church.”

Councilwoman Keri Lynn Wilson, who attends Yorba Linda Friends Church -- also known as the Church on the Hill -- insists that her involvement there bears no relationship to her support for the school. “People who know me,” she said, “know that my internal compass is fairly well set. There is no one who has undue influence over me. I strive to do what’s best for the community as a whole.”

Opponents, however, cite an ethical conflict in Wilson’s failure to recuse herself. “How can you vote against something that your church is requesting,” longtime council watcher Pat Nelson asked, “and then show up at services on Sunday?”

No one claims that Wilson or other city officials broke any laws -- which, in California, define conflicts of interest primarily in economic terms. But the issue has added another entry to a debate that’s raged almost since the 63,000-strong city began: Just how powerful and important should its religious communities be, including one purported to be the nation’s largest Quaker congregation?

“They are rich, they have numbers and they are actively involved,” said Lee Day, a community activist who opposes the high school and is critical of Yorba Linda Friends, which attracts as many as 4,000 worshippers a week. “They just steamroll you.”

Nelson said she is also troubled by the church’s propensity for political success: “When they want something, it’s very easy for them to mobilize support from their members.”

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That potential may not have been apparent in 1912 when the congregation was founded by a local group of Quakers, including Frank A. and Hannah M. Nixon, parents of the future president.

“There’s a really long connection between the church and Yorba Linda, which was a major Quaker settlement -- that’s how [the town] got on the map and grew,” said Ed Rakochy, president of the city’s Historical Conservancy.

Quakers were traditionally contemplative, apolitical and not prone to making loud public statements regarding civic policy. Over the years, however, that changed; the local church evolved -- as did many of its California counterparts -- beyond the staid and quiet boundaries of its Pennsylvania past.

It has metamorphosed, Rakochy said. “It’s really not a Quaker organization anymore.”

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The church’s current pastor, Matthew Cork, did not return calls seeking comment on the church’s role in the city. And its former spiritual leader -- Pastor John Werhas, who led the congregation for 17 years before leaving in 2003 after a dispute with church elders -- declined, through a spokeswoman, to discuss his tenure.

Chuck Bittick, however, a longtime church member and former Yorba Linda planning commissioner, acknowledged that Yorba Linda Friends “has tried to be influential in lots of ways.” One of its earliest tactics, he said, involved owning the city’s first -- and, at the time, only -- liquor license. “They didn’t think that a bar should be in the city,” Bittick said. “They bought the license so that nobody else could have it.”

Eventually the city began issuing other licenses, effectively loosening the church’s grip on the consumption of spirits. Since then, Bittick says, the Church on the Hill has become one of the city’s largest landowners with holdings that include a Yorba Linda Boulevard strip mall.

And the tendency to involve itself in local politics, Bittick says, has continued and broadened. During his successful 1998 City Council campaign, Gullixson prominently featured an unlabeled photograph of Werhas -- whom he recently described as a personal friend and provider of “emotional support” -- in his campaign fliers. And in 1993, the church lobbied successfully for a major expansion of its facilities aided, in part, by the mobilization of members on behalf of City Council candidates who favored their plans.

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“We were very concerned at the time,” Bittick recalled, “because among those people who were on the council and running for reelection, we had two or three who had taken positions contrary to our wishes.... I felt that we had to pull together to ensure, through our influence, that our goals be supported by the people we elect.”

To accomplish that, Bittick and what he later described as a “committee” of church members sent a blistering letter, printed on plain white paper with the church’s name on top, to the congregation urging votes for a favored slate. “We have enough of the electorate that attends our church that I felt it was the place to start,” he said of the letter, which, among other things, exhorted fellow church members to “ensure that the City Council majority continues to be family men and women of faith.”

The mailing, Bittick said, resulted in angry threats of lawsuits by opponents who claimed that the church had violated its nonprofit status by attempting to influence a local election. But none of them came to fruition, he said, because “we went to three different attorneys, most of whom had practiced civil law, and they advised us that everything was legitimate and could not be construed as [having been issued] by the church.”

The debate over the proposed high school on Bastanchury Road is the latest lightning rod for critics. Those opposed to the project -- which is co-sponsored by Rose Drive Friends Church, another Quaker-based church in town -- argue that the land could be put to better, and more profitable, use. “The fact that all 33 acres is going to one entity isn’t in the best interests of the citizens of Yorba Linda,” Nelson said of the city’s last major undeveloped piece of land.

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Proponents say leasing the parcel to the church for a high school -- in addition to providing residents with access to such much-needed facilities as a performing arts center, ball field and aquatics center -- will assure the city of a substantial income for years to come.

“I don’t think it’s a bad deal for the city,” said Councilman Michael Duvall. “We were going to run out of tax revenue soon. I think it’s a very good decision.”

Councilman Allen Castellano said he voted for the project because it’s “a fit for the community, a win-win situation.” The fact that he’s a former regular at Rose Drive Friends Church, which he stopped attending in 2000, played no role in his decision, he said.

“We’ve gone to several churches since then, including Yorba Linda Friends, but I was never a member,” said the councilman, who recently sent his children to the church’s weeklong vacation Bible school.

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The only negative vote came from Councilman Jim Winder, who said he questioned the project’s financing. An environmental impact report on the project is due later this year.

Councilwoman Wilson, meanwhile, makes no apologies for supporting her church. The proposed school, she said, “will pump $80 [million] to $90 million into the city over the term of the lease. If there’s a sweetheart deal, it’s between the school and the community, not the city and the church.”


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