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City sponsorship of event causes heated Claremont council debate (updated)

The city of Claremont will co-sponsor the 40th anniversary celebration of El Barrio Park next month despite a lengthy dispute Tuesday night over a possible conflict regarding religion.  

Mayor Pro Tem Opanyi Nasiali first called into question the appropriateness of the city’s sponsorship because the event—set for Saturday, June 16—includes a Catholic mass.

The Arbol Verde Preservation Committee approached the city about the $370 co-sponsorship to help with the cost of insurance and equipment such as chairs and tables for the day of the party. The sponsorship would save the committee an estimated $620, they said.

An hour of debate ensued regarding the city’s stance on donating money to an event with religious ties, a potential violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

The 3-0 vote with one abstention was finally reached with city staff’s assurance that it would review the city’s policies regarding requests that deal with religious affiliation, to be brought back to the council at a later date. That agreement was the stipulation for Mr. Nasiali’s favorable vote. Overall, the council agreed the event was about celebrating the culture of the Arbol Verde neighborhood and that the hour designated for a religious ceremony was an undercurrent.

“The mass isn’t there just for the sake of being Catholic, it’s part of the history,” said Councilmember Sam Pedroza. “The first Catholic church in Claremont is the rich part of the history of that area.”

In addition to the anniversary of the park, the gathering will recognize the centennial of the Arbol Verde community and the release of the book Mexican American Baseball in the Inland Empire. An open air mass was proposed because of the significance of the former Catholic chapel that once resided in the El Barrio Park area.

Claremont resident Ginger Elliott, former longtime director of Claremont Heritage, added her voice to support the sponsorship of the event on a cultural and historical note.

“I don’t think we’re supporting a religious institution,” she said. “We are simply supporting a cultural identity that belongs to the people who were connected with this park.”

Though Mr. Nasiali assured that he is in support of the celebration and plans to attend, he felt compelled to bring up the issue because of his discomfort in not having a more clear-cut set of guidelines on what qualifies as events that violate the establishment clause.  

“I feel uncomfortable just going blindly, picking one request after another, and not having specific guidelines on how we make those choices,” Mr. Nasiali said.

Under the establishment clause, the government cannot engage in activities that promote or affiliate itself with a specific religious doctrine or religious organization. However, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said that the city can “provide benefits” without violating the law if it is determined that the city’s action has a nonreligious purpose, if it does not advance religion as its primary effect, and if it does not foster excessive government entanglement with religion.

Ms. Carvalho believed none of these were the case in Claremont’s sponsorship of the El Barrio Park celebration. “The overriding purpose of the event is to celebrate the history of the park and to celebrate Mexican American baseball in the Inland Empire,” she said. “That is the primary, overreaching purpose.”

Despite assurances from Ms. Carvalho, Claremont resident Dean McHenry remained unconvinced: “A formal mass held under the sponsorship of the city is something which pushes the boundary of this church/state linkage,” he said, suggesting the city sponsorship start after the mass ends. “Church is clearly involved here.”

Councilmember Corey Calaycay also remained unsure, choosing to abstain from the vote altogether partially because of his own conflict of interest being Catholic. Mr. Calaycay said he felt uncomfortable using city money to support one religion over another.

“This can open up a Pandora’s box,” Mr. Calaycay said. “I don’t want to get in a situation where I get caught because people [feel] I’m playing favorites.”

With a “yes” vote from the rest of the council, City Manager Tony Ramos stated that city staff would make a thorough review of the city’s policy on requests involving religious organizations in the near future.

 

General Fund gets a new name

Claremont’s General Fund Reserve has been divided and renamed to better manage the city’s provisional assets.

The Claremont City Council agreed Tuesday to rename the General Reserve Fund to the Operating and Environmental Emergency Reserve to better reflect its purpose. The General Reserve serves as a natural and fiscal emergency account, holding at least 25 percent of the General Fund Operating budget for such scenarios, should they arise. Of the estimated $11 million General Fund balance, about $5.67 million is designated as reserve monies used for these types of emergencies.

“I look at this as being not only good fiscally responsible behavior, but certainly in that we represent you and your future interests, we are serving that good also,” said Councilmember Joe Lyons.

With excess, unassigned money in the General Fund balance, the council also approved the establishment of 2 new reserves: the Maintenance of Operations and Equipment and Facility Revolving reserves. Maintenance of Operations will be created to address unanticipated projects or costs such as city council-directed projects, liability not covered by city insurance, and temporary revenue shortfalls or cost increases not in the city’s control. The Equipment and Facility Revolving Reserve will be used for purchases that include renovations to existing city buildings as well as the replacement and refurbishment of furniture and equipment within, and safety and emergency response equipment.

Both of the new reserves will be given $500,000 each of unassigned General Fund money.

 

Tentative contract reached with police

Mayor Larry Schroeder announced a tentative agreement reached in negotiations with the city and board members of the Claremont Police Management Association. The potential finalized contract was reached during closed session prior to Tuesday’s general council meeting.

The proposed contract will now be taken to the CPMA general membership for a vote. If the contract passes, it will be brought back before the council for a final vote at a regular council meeting. The CPMA contract, proposed through 2014, is the final contract negotiation needed by employee groups of the city of Claremont.

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

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