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"Jenita!" Rides The Stage In City Hall
David 'Kip' Koontz

March 13, 2002

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 every word.

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 be fiction.

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 government.

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 sight.

(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 way.

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 the addition,

[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 The Tentacle)


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