The Santa Monica Planning Commission has approved a permit to expand the Jonathan Club, but voted to ask the City Council to investigate the club's membership policies that allegedly discriminate against women, Jews and minorities.
In grudgingly approving the permit for a 13,664-square-foot expansion at the club's beachfront facility, commissioners denied a variance that would have exempted the club from the city's zoning laws.
To Send Letter
The commission also voted to send a letter to the state Coastal Commission stating that the club's membership policies may affect the public's right to beach access.
"In this day and age it is unacceptable to have a quasi-public organization on a major strip of the California beach which allegedly doesn't allow women, blacks, Jews and Hispanics," Commissioner Derek Shearer said.
Mayor Christine E. Reed said that she does not expect the council to approve an investigation of any private property owner in the city, including the Jonathan Club. Councilman William H. Jennings said that it was not proper for the Planning Commission to take up the question of discrimination.
But Councilman David G. Epstein said that an inquiry might be warranted if the city has any jurisdiction over the club. "I think that it's an issue that perhaps bears some more investigation," Epstein said.
City Atty. Robert M. Myers said he was not aware of any previous investigation of the club's membership policies. "If the City Council asked us to do an investigation, we would provide them with the information they required," Myers said.
Disputes between the club and the city go back more than a decade. One of them involved a lawsuit involving the state, the club and the city over a beach boundary. Previous councils had refused to act on the matter because of the club's alleged discriminatory policies. In the early 1980s, former Councilwoman Cheryl Rhoden told a club official "not one grain of sand" would be given to the club until it changed its membership policies.
Issue Laid to Rest
Last January, however, the three parties reached a settlement. The council agreed to the settlement out of fear that the city would lose the lawsuit and with it a stretch of beach.
"My understanding is that we set that issue (of discrimination) to rest in settling the lawsuit," Reed said.
The City Council last year voted to deny a Fourth of July fireworks permit to the club, while approving a permit for the Sand and Sea Club. It reversed its decision the same night because of fear of litigation.
"The council has taken some funny actions on the Jonathan Club in the past," Epstein said. "If people are concerned about the discrimination issue, it ought to be dealt with head-on."
Monday's Planning Commission vote came after Deputy City Atty. Jonathan Horne advised commissioners to confine themselves to planning issues first and to deal with the issue of discrimination separately.
Four commissioners voted to approve the permit.
"I think the presence of the institution in Santa Monica is abhorrent," said Commissioner Ken Genser, who voted to approve. "I would not like to do anything to perpetuate its existence in the city. . . . For me, when I'm up here, I have to administer the laws as fairly as I can, and I don't see any grounds to deny the development review."
But Commissioners Shearer and Edward Kirshner said they could not separate their concerns about the club's membership policies from a decision on the permit and voted to deny the application.
"I cannot, in my public or private role, ever support an institution like this no matter how technically legal the application may be," Kirshner said.
Commissioner Tom Larmore, a member of the club, abstained from the discussion. Larmore later said that the club has more than 4,000 members, but he refused to say how many are women and minorities.
Club officials have consistently refused to discuss their membership policies. When the commission asked Monday whether the club discriminates on the basis of race, sex or religion, John R. Shiner, an attorney representing the Jonathan Club, responded:.
"I feel the question is irrelevant to the question before the Planning Commission. I would ask you to limit yourself to the question before you."
When The Times asked Shiner later why the club refused to assert that its membership policies are not discriminatory, Shiner would not comment. He also declined comment on the number of members and how many are women and minorities.
In his report to the commission, Horne said it was important to determine whether the club is a "purely" private organization. He said that because the club has entered into a lease agreement with the city and the state, grounds may exist for applying state and federal civil rights laws to it. But Horne said more information is required.
Shiner told the commission that the club has a tax-exempt, nonprofit status. Horne said more information also is required to find out if the club is violating federal tax laws.
Several charges have been leveled against the club's alleged discriminatory practices. In 1976, the club was charged with refusing to allow a black member of the Air Force Academy Catholic Cadet Choir to perform at the club.
In 1978, The Times reported that an applicant had been told by two members of the club's membership committee that Jews and blacks were not welcome in the club. One committee member denied the allegation, while another said the applicant was partially correct but "got it a little off center."
The club's remodeling plans include a new exercise room, expanded locker rooms, a service elevator, a pro shop, paddle tennis courts, a children's pool and an outdoor service bar. The club intends to expand the kitchen and the dining room and reorganize an employee lounge.