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City Attorney Issues Opinion : Club May Be Violating 2 Constitutions

December 11, 1988|ADRIANNE GOODMAN | Times Staff Writer

The all-male Tuna Club in Avalon may be violating the U.S. and California constitutions if it is denying membership to women and minorities, City Atty. Michael Jenkins says, because the club is housed on public property.

In an opinion delivered to the Avalon City Council last week, Jenkins advised the council to send a letter to officials of the sportfishing club, asking them "to affirm . . . that they, in fact, do not maintain discriminatory practices in their membership or in their operation."

If the club is discriminating, it could be violating the equal-protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions, Jenkins said.

"By virtue of the club leasing city property, the club has a public character even though it's a private club," Jenkins said in an interview Wednesday. "In the eyes of the law, (it is) considered to be an arm of the city and constitutionally is bound by the same laws that bind the city."

Club officials could not be reached for comment. In an interview last month, a club board member said its bylaws do not preclude women from being nominated for membership. But the official added that no woman had ever been nominated. He said prospective members are nominated by club members, based on contributions to sportfishing and conservation.

The city attorney's opinion says non-discrimination is an implied condition of the Tuna Club's lease for the building and tidelands property that the club leases from the city.

The letter will be sent to Tuna Club officials by the end of the week, Jenkins said. No deadline will be imposed for a response.

The 200-member Tuna Club is an exclusive, 90-year-old sportfishing club housed in a white, New England-style building on the Santa Catalina Island waterfront. Most of the club's members are affluent boat owners who live on the mainland.

The city attorney's opinion was sought by Councilwoman Irene Strobel, who has visited the club twice in her role as a council member. She said the club has a policy requiring women to use the side or back doors, but she insisted on entering by the front door.

Strobel said Wednesday that the city's request for assurances from club officials "is a start."

"It doesn't appear there's been a woman member there for 90 years," Strobel said. "That ought to tell you something."

Mayor Hugh T. (Bud) Smith said he is waiting to hear from the club. "At this time, it hasn't been demonstrated that they're in violation," he said.

Jenkins said the city "is not going back on a historical basis to examine how it is they came to have an all-male membership." Instead, the city wants assurance that women and minorities can apply for membership and will be "accorded equal treatment," Jenkins said.

The city attorney's recommendation came as the club is seeking to negotiate a 40-year lease with the city to replace its 10-year lease, which expires in December, 1989. The club pays the city $4,800 a year to use the property.

Club officials have said they want to extend the lease before repairing about $250,000 in damage that the building suffered in a storm last January, Assistant City Manager Pete Woolson said. Club officials will pay for the repairs if they can get the extended lease, Woolson said.

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