In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Evita” there is a song titled,
“Oh What A Circus” that talks about how the best show in
Buenos Aires was outside the President’s palace, the Casa
Rosada, where Eva Peron, the President’s wife, would appear
periodically on a balcony to decree that this or that was
going to happen. The crowds would go wild and cheer her
Seeing this scene performed on stage,
or on the big screen, is chilling and somewhat surreal as
we watch the peasants who believe they are witnessing a
fabulous demonstration of democracy in action. Of course,
we know that it was simply a great show of hypocrisy put
on simply to make the peasants think there was some version
of democracy going on in the Argentine government.
Well, folks, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s
show has been pushed aside by the real antics going on at
Frederick’s City Hall, where our city’s own comic farce
will run for the next four years.
“Jenita” as we could call it, has everything a Broadway hit needs.
Deceit, lies, intrigue, betrayal, tyranny (and more) packs
this show with so many emotions and so much action that
one gets dizzy in the first act alone, by simply trying
to keep up with what’s real versus with what just has to
Yet, this is real life! It would
be something like this if made into a play.
Act I, Scene I:
(Lights come up as curtain opens;
the setting is City Hall where a new mayor and Board of
Aldermen are getting used to their environs).
The opening scene is set in January
after the mayor and Board of Alderman are sworn in. There
is a general sense of happiness in the air as the new mayor
has promised the citizens a new and improved, more open
The masses who stand on the steps
of City Hall are eagerly awaiting a fresh approach to city
government that they had been told was lacking during the
previous eight years of “good old boy” style government,
full of closed door, back room deals. According to what
they had been told, the decision making process would occur
openly and honestly, with adequate participation in the
process by not only the public, but also the Board of Aldermen.
However, right from the get go,
Jenita finds her style, her approach to
open government, doesn’t sit well with her fellow elected
officials. Jenita garners opposition by three members
of the Board of Aldermen, who claim they are being ignored
and that the City Charter is being sidestepped so that she
can accomplish her goals without question.
Not that the peasants have noticed. It is
open government, Jenita
claims. It is open government, supporters repeat in chorus.
But – is it?
Unfortunately for Jenita, the outgoing mayor left her and
this new board a very sticky issue to resolve, the issue
of the nearly 1,400 square foot addition proposed by the
Frederick Presbyterian Church.
(Fade to black).
Act I, Scene II:
You see, the issue has been plaguing
the city for 3 ˝ years. Yet there seemed to be no end in
(Lights come up. On scene is the
hearing room where the Presbyterian Church’s proposed addition
is first heard before the Board of Zoning Appeals [BZA]).
The church is applying for a parking
variation to meet zoning requirements for the 1,400 square
foot addition. The church’s pastor says she wants to expand
the church’s ministry -- including concerts in the hall.
The architect says the church’s goal to provide handicap
access (elevator, etc.) was but “one benefit” of the addition.
The BZA is not convinced. They tell
the church the size is too big and injurious to the neighborhood.
The request is denied.
[FOOTNOTE: As early as this time
in history, those who were opposed to the size of the addition
offered a compromise that demonstrated that the church could
fulfill their desire to provide handicap accessibility with
a smaller building. The church followed the process by appealing that denial to the
Circuit Court. The appeal died quietly. The church stopped
pursuing it because…]
(Fade to dark).
Act I, Scene III:
(Lights come up. The Frederick Area
Ministerial Association (FAMA) is proposing a text amendment
before the Planning Commission).
In an attempt an end run around
Frederick’s codes, which says if the building gets bigger
you must add more parking, FAMA proposes, at the Presbyterian
Church’s bequest, to try to change the law.
The change: it doesn’t matter how
big our church building becomes, as long as we’re using
it for the same thing, we don’t need more parking.
This proposal is amended repeatedly.
But, in its final draft, it says that if the building doesn’t
grow more than 10 percent, parking can stay the same,
But the Planning Commission denies
the text amendment on the advice of Zoning Administrator
Catherine Parks. The law, as it stands, is perfectly good
enough, she says.
Instead of following the process,
which would have been going back to the BZA to have Ms.
Park’s decision overturned, the Ministerial Association
kicks the text amendment upstairs for a ruling by the Mayor
Jim Grimes and his Board of Alderman.
They are again denied.
(Fade to black).
Act I, Scene IV:
(Lights come up and curtain opens
in the Office of City Attorney Lynn Board. She is reading
a letter from Presbyterian Church member and attorney Bruce
Dean who has come up with another angle).
Mr. Dean sees that the process is
in the way of his goals, but a new federal law might come
to his rescue. He writes Ms. Board that a new law passed
by Congress, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized
Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) applies to his church.
Mr. Dean claims that by requiring
a parking variance the church’s practice of religion is
in some way being impeded.
Catherine Parks writes back. Mr.
Dean’s letter should never have been sent to Ms. Board to
begin with as it is not her place to interpret code - just
to offer legal advice.
Fearing a lawsuit, and changing
her mind for the first time, Ms. Parks flips and decides
no variance is needed after all because, while the footprint
of the church is indeed growing, the church says there will
not be permanent seating installed. Ergo, it does not trigger
the law requiring more parking.
Opponents of the size of the addition
appeal that decision and make an appeal to Chuck Boyd, director,
saying Ms. Park’s decision is in error.
This sets up a hearing before BZA,
as should be the case.
The BZA overturns Ms. Park’s determination
on the basis of the recommendation of Ms. Board’s replacement,
new City Attorney Heather Price Smith, who says: “It is
the opinion of the office of legal services that the February
14th decision of the zoning administrator was
based upon an incomplete analysis of the specific facts
and legal issues involved, and that the BZA should reverse
the decision on that basis.”
Ms. Smith goes on to say that the
applicant should file another variance and that the BZA
should conduct a full RLUIPA analysis, which would include
showing whether the church would suffer substantial burden
on the exercise of religion because of the denial of the
size of their addition, whether the government has a compelling
interest not to grant the request, and if there would be
some way to achieve the church’s goals in the least restrictive
Ms. Smith also says that the city
should discuss what actions the city has taken to relieve
any real infringement on the church’s exercise of religion,
such as offering the church a compromise on the size of
[FOOTNOTE: They were asked to compromise.
Many, many times.]
While this was going on, the only
good news the church receives is the Historic District Commission
has given level one approval to the church’s building plans.
(Fade to black).
Act I, Scene V: (Early September.
Lights up on the Office of the Mayor, where Mayor Jim Grimes
and Attorney Bruce Dean are chatting about a possible back
room solution to the church’s “problem.” They’ve been meeting
secretly for the last 3 days).
The deal conveniently would side
step three years of process and law that the opponents to
the size of the addition were attempting to follow.
Also, conveniently, the deal is
a great way to repay Aldermen Joe Baldi’s loyalty to Mr.
Grimes. Mr. Baldi is a member of the Presbyterian Church.
Of course during the election nothing
is mentioned about this handshake deal
Of course the voters, deciding they
want a Fresh Approach without Grimes’ back room shuffling,
sweep Jenita to power.
The church panics. Bruce Dean panics.
The church is forced to push the
outgoing mayor to expedite the deal as swiftly as possible.
The deal is squeezed onto the consent agenda of Mr. Grimes’s
final meeting. Fortunately, Ms. Smith leaks the document
to those opposing the addition’s size at 5:25 P. M. the
evening before that meeting was to occur.
(Fade to black).
Act I, Scene VI: (Lights up and
the setting is the Hearing Room at City Hall where gleeful
Presbyterians and anxious opponents to the size of the addition
await the consent agenda portion of the meeting).
It’s an evening full of excitement,
as Alderman Donna Kuzemchak, who realizes the city’s process
is being thwarted, pulls the agreement off the consent agenda,
which forces discussion.
Alderman Baldi, at first hostilely,
refuses to recuse himself, only doing so after being threatened
with a public threat of a hearing before the Ethics Commission.
After much discussion on the applicability
of RLUIPA and the entire process, it was agreed that the
agreement should be tabled for further discussion.
(Fade to black).
INTERMISSION (Act II on tomorrow’s