Morgan's Tea Party
The City of Monterey wants cafe owner Morgan Christopher to toe the line. His reply? The finger.
Thursday, June 28, 2001
Wright''s discovery set the wheels of civic justice in motion. Emails flew. Conferences ensued. The next day Wright penned a citation and accompanying letter.
"Because... you have been warned repeatedly to remove the table and chairs to ensure that [the area] won''t be used, I am issuing an administrative citation," she wrote to cafe owner Morgan Christopher. The fine was $500.
As it happens, Wright completed the citation about an hour and a half after concluding an interview with the Weekly, along with her supervisor, City Attorney Bill Conners, regarding an ongoing dispute between Christopher and the city. During the interview, the attractively dressed and made-up Wright expressed dismay at Christopher''s recalcitrance.
"I used to work for the building department in the Sacramento area," she says. "Usually when a building official tells you to cease and desist, you stop. I''ve never seen anything like this." She shoots Conners an aggrieved look.
"We have what we call a ''defiance stance,''" adds Conners, a trim ex-Marine dressed for casual Friday in a crisp oxford and khakis. "It really is the exception to the rule that someone defies orders to comply with code. To say we''re picking on him or singling him out--that''s a damn lie."
Christopher is quite certain that he''s being picked on.
Conners Man: City Attorney Bill Conners says Christopher''s problems stem from his attitude. "Morgan''s a nice enough guy," he says, "but he doesn''t like anyone telling him he has to play by the rules."
"My current troubles arise directly from my questioning of the City," he wrote in a letter to City Manager Fred Meurer. "I do not use the word ''harassment'' lightly, but that is what this is... The term ''selective enforcement'' is particularly apt."
Christopher cites as evidence for his claim an incident that took place on March 8, when six inspectors from four departments descended on his cafe en masse. Fueling his suspicion is the fact that on that very day, an advertisement for Morgan''s appeared in the Weekly that mocked Conners and depicted him as a clown.
The city attorney denies any connection between the group inspection and the ad. He also denies there''s a link between the city''s actions and a stunt that Christopher pulled earlier in the year, placing a gold-painted chair on display at the coffee shop, in dedication "to city attorney William B. Conners: a golden seat for a golden ass."
"Which is funny," says Conners with a bitter smile, "because I have an unusually good sense of humor." Conners'' funny bone may be well developed, but following the pranks, he sent Christopher a letter advising him that if the "smear campaign" strayed into slanderous territory, he would be served with a lawsuit.
As for the swarm of inspectors descending on Morgan''s on March 8, Conners swears that the raid "happened without any of my knowledge."
At this point in the conversation, Wright steps in. "If Bill got involved with all my cases, he''d never get any city attorney work done." They exchange glances.
Conners gestures behind him at a row of manila folders on a credenza. "I have all these cases to work on. None of them are Morgan''s. Hundreds of hours have already been spent on this."
"Doing what?" I ask.
"Writing letters... " offers Wright.
"Emails, mostly," Conners interjects.
"Putting together packages for people," says Wright with a nod at a packet bearing neatly labeled attachments--pages photocopied from the building code, with sections highlighted for the convenience of the city manager and reporters.
For the sixth time that day, Conners advances the theory that Christopher is simply a shrewd businessman who recognizes the value of publicity.
"He doesn''t care," Conners says. "He''s getting mileage out of this. I think he''s playing the media--[the Weekly] in particular--like a finely oiled piano."
The most recent chapter of the Monterey vs. Morgan''s story began last September, while construction was underway to build Griffin Plaza, the triangular concrete courtyard wedged between Washington Street and the building that houses Morgan''s. At the time, the cafe entrance sported a steep concrete step that occasionally tripped patrons. While working on the plaza, city construction manager Les Turnbeaugh approached Morgan''s about leveling the step into a ramp. He suggested that Morgan''s would split the cost with the city. Christopher was out of town at the time, so Michelle Caroll, his office manager, spoke with Turnbeaugh about the idea.
Caroll and Christopher maintain that no deal was struck and that she refused to negotiate on Christopher''s behalf. Construction on the ramp proceeded anyway.
The city, on the other hand, believes Caroll and Turnbeaugh reached an oral agreement.
"Michelle knows how little money we have," says Christopher, a tall, heavy-lidded man with a resonant voice. "There''s no way she would have said, ''Oh yeah, we can afford three grand.'' Next thing I know, I get a letter from the city saying ''if you don''t pay this, you''re in trouble.''"
Monterey City Manager
"His manager gave the OK," shrugs Fred Meurer. "Well, shame on Les--he didn''t get a written contract."
The city attorney''s office has since dropped the matter, leaving Christopher satisfied that the city ultimately decided it had no legal leg to stand on. Nevertheless, he believes the ramp is the city''s underlying gripe--"and the rest is retaliation." The inspections began on Jan. 17, shortly after the exchange about the $3,000 construction bill.
"You go years without an inspection," Christopher insists. "The health inspectors have given me A ratings for years."
According to city officials, the red flag that alerted them to problems at Morgan''s was some construction debris found on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop, which Christopher had decided to expand into an empty space next door.
At least 15 inspections by the building department, the health department and the fire department in the last six months (the building inspector alone has paid 10 visits to Morgan''s) have found the cafe in violation of numerous codes. In Christopher''s view, some of the violations are of dubious merit. That''s the primary insult. The secondary insult, Christopher says, is that petty violations have been "made to sound like dangerous sweatshop conditions."
The health department cited him for not having smooth walls in the food preparation area to make cleaning easier, for having an unventilated mop sink, and for using an unventilated oven for baking muffins. The fire inspector took issue with a refrigerator that was blocking an electrical panel, and determined that if the cafe were going to expand into the space next door, it would need an extra fire escape. The building inspector cited Morgan''s for having no handicapped-accessible restroom and for expanding the cafe without a use permit. Until he got a permit, the inspector said, customers could not sit in the extra room.
The inspections were exercises in frustration for all involved. Building inspector Mike Stone found his orders to stop using the unpermitted space and the oven utterly ignored. Christopher, believing himself unjustly targeted, put forth little effort to cooperate during the inspections.
The oven was a big problem. After a great deal of fuss--including a $500 fine to Christopher, Wright''s enlistment of police to ensure that the oven not be used on the weekend, and several flat refusals by Christopher to unplug it--Christopher produced a statement from the oven manufacturer verifying that a ventilation hood is unnecessary for such an oven. That, he says, is the reason he selected it in the first place.
Then the chair affair began.
Once Griffin Plaza was complete, Morgan''s clientele began pulling the cafe''s green resin chairs into the sun and away from their old shady haunt next to the building. According to standing city policy, that constituted an encroachment into the right-of-way. The city did, however, agree that the plaza was designed for just such use. While Christopher and Fred Meurer were in the middle of negotiations over the placement of patio furniture, Wright paid a visit to the cafe and told Christopher that if he didn''t get his chairs in the proper place, she''d have the police confiscate them.
That further annoyed Christopher, who felt he was acting in good faith with the city manager. At that point, he installed the "golden seat" dedicated to Conners and ran the Weekly ad with the clown face ("recently uncovered high school photo of city attorney"), which appeared on March 7.
The scene was set for the Day of Infamy.
At 9am on March 8, building inspector Mike Stone visited Morgan''s for the fifth time and saw the smoking muffins (or the cooling muffins) and two more trays of pastry awaiting their turn in the oven of questionable legality. Stone observed other infractions as well, and at 9:45 emailed Debra Wright with his findings.
Within the next 45 minutes, Stone, Wright, Fire Marshall Rick Rodewald, Assistant Fire Marshall David Reade, and county Health Inspectors Jim Finney and Howard Tsuchiya met in Conners'' office. All involved say the meeting had not been planned before that day.
"We were on our way somewhere else," recalls Reade. Neither he nor Rodewald remember who called the meeting, but both agree it must have been the building inspector. Stone himself, however, doesn''t remember "who called who."
Conners says unequivocally that he didn''t call the assembly, but he offered counsel about what they could do once they got to Morgan''s. In a letter written that day to Michael Stamp, Christopher''s attorney, Conners says he asked for reports from all departments involved. He also determined that "the City will undertake immediate abatement activity to protect the public''s health, safety and welfare."
After leaving the office, the inspectors filed into Morgan''s. When they got there, Christopher asked them not to leave, since he intended to call his attorney and the local media. The crew made its inspection. According to Christopher, one of the health inspectors said "Just get rid of the chair, Morgan." The Weekly was unable to confirm this statement, as Finney and Tsuchiya did not respond to requests for interviews.
At the end of the inspection, Stone went to red-tag and tape the oven, only to find it was still hot. An employee unplugged it, and Stone promised to return after it had cooled. At noon he came back. The oven was plugged in again and in use.
"At that point I just said ''OK. Whatever,''" says Stone. "I went back three times that particular day."
Things got worse from there. Several weeks later, when Wright went to inspect Morgan''s, Christopher followed her with a videocamera, refusing to answer her questions. Another time Christopher left a message on her voice mail machine telling her not to come back to his restaurant without police.
"I have it on tape," she says. "It sounded kind of threatening."
On March 27, a man walked into Morgan''s with a camera and started taking pictures. When Christopher approached him, he uncorked a stream of threats and invective that left Christopher shaken and perplexed. The man turned out to be Richard Wilkinson, a city employee and Debra Wright''s ex-boyfriend. He later told police that he''d intended to help Wright out by documenting some code violations. Christopher didn''t press charges.
Two days after the Wilkinson incident, Christopher got a letter from the city''s revenue office requesting verification of gross receipts for the fiscal years 1997-2000. He was being audited. To him and his attorney, the letter was just another exhibit in a full-fledged case of harassment.
"It appears that the audit is part of a concerted effort to impose costs and burdens on Mr. Christopher," wrote Stamp to Meurer. "It is more than coincidence, and it raises some very large issues about the use of governmental taxing authorities."
Fred Meurer says this is standard procedure and notes that Morgan''s is one of 40 or so businesses in the same boat. "He thinks they''re linked," Meurer says of the inspections and the audit. "In reality, our folks pulled licenses of people who were late on such-and-such a date paying their taxes and people who have amended their gross receipts. That was the standard this year. It changes annually.
"He looks at it as a great conspiracy. We look at it as enforcement."
At this point, Christopher has resolved most of the code violations, with the exception of the use permit and the handicapped-accessible restroom. The two are linked, and Christopher says they put him in a catch-22.
"I want to put the handicapped restroom in the new section," he says, "but they won''t approve the use permit for the new part until I''ve put a handicapped restroom in the old part."
"Morgan has never shown that on a set of plans," says Bill Wojtkowski, who as community development director heads up the planning and building departments. "He''s talked about it, but he needs to put it on a set of plans."
Christopher responds that the new restroom doesn''t appear in his plans because he had been told, before all of the trouble began, that he wouldn''t need to put one in.
Stir It Up: Hipsters, students and progressive political causes have been flocking to Morgan''s since it opened in 1994.
"What''s been going on here is phenomenally stupid," Christopher says. "If you don''t cower and give them everything they want, they get really nasty with you. They''re a bunch of military men and women who can''t stand being questioned."
The city, naturally, sees it in different terms. "At times Morgan gives the impression of being rule-challenged," Meurer says. "He assumes there''s a motive behind the inspections. There is: follow the rules. It goes back not to the [clown] cartoon, but to the expansion without a permit. The follow-up inspection wouldn''t have happened if there had been compliance immediately."
Stamp disputes the claim that the city''s scrutiny of Christopher is simply a matter of enforcing the rules. Stamp says he has proof that Christopher has been the butt of jokes circulating via city email--on city time and city equipment. The flavor of the city''s rhetoric, the extreme vigilance of Wright and Stone regarding often petty matters and Conners'' alleged display of indifference to the fact that a city employee threatened Christopher, all point to something more insidious, he says. Stamp is convinced that scapegoating Christopher is an unofficially sanctioned activity, one guaranteed to win approval from a cohort of higher-ups who view Christopher as a pain in the ass. The order to catch him slipping up need not be explicit to be discriminatory.
"I think a climate to marginalize Morgan has been created," Stamp says. "This idea that Morgan isn''t like us, he''s an outsider--once that climate is created, then in order to curry favor and be on the winning team, you have to fall in line with that."
Rebel Without a Permit
In my second-grade class there was a boisterous, chubby kid named Sonny Burnham. Sonny was one of those kids who couldn''t resist twisting around in his seat and jabbering or playing army with erasers on the desk behind him. He was incapable of sitting still. And we knew, with our piercing little-kid instincts, that the teacher hated him. A steel-belted matron disguised as a garden-variety grandma, Mrs. Buell meted out a fearsome version of justice--especially to Sonny. Infractions that would land anyone else 15 minutes in the library corner earned Sonny paddlings of such fierceness that he would sob out loud--the ultimate humiliation--and return to his seat whimpering, snot dribbling down his upper lip. An hour later he was fidgeting and fussing again. By mid-year we understood that it wasn''t about talking in class. It was a contest of wills.
Christopher, who spent four years as a teacher 20 years ago, has opinions on schooling. "Mostly what school is about," he says, "is teaching conformity." Treating people like human beings is in short supply--in schools, in the workplace, in civic life.
"I have occasionally been told in the past by some people that they believe I have a "problem with authority;" this is simply not true. It is not from having any problem with authority that my current dispute with the City of Monterey stems."
That may be true, but Morgan''s now stands as a kind of monument to problems with authority. There''s the message board in the café, where each day Christopher posts his observations on government ineptitude, with special attention paid to the city attorney and the President. There are tattooed patrons and pink-haired staffers. Lefty candidates and causes have headquartered their campaigns at Morgan''s. When Pebble Beach Co. declared the image of the Lone Cypress tree to be its exclusive property, Morgan''s hosted a Lone Cypress Art Show.
Then there''s the Starbucks/Burger King business, the festering genesis, in Christopher''s opinion, of the city''s animus toward him.
In 1998, when Starbucks and Burger King separately had decided to open locations on Alvarado, Christopher loudly opposed the two national chains--a stance that, in light of his livelihood, raised eyebrows at City Hall.
"They were trying to pit this as a competition issue, but it''s a community issue," Christopher insists. "The loss of businesses that reflect the community had been bothering me for a long time." Morgan drew up a petition asking the city to rethink its philosophy on local businesses, and gathered 4,000 signatures. In the end, the city tightened zoning requirements on "formula fast food" establishments. Starbucks went in, but ultimately Burger King did not.
"I was bombarded with appreciation and started feeling like I was being pushed to the forefront of a movement I hadn''t signed up for," Christopher says. "I didn''t know what I was getting into, honestly. Since then we''ve not had cordial relations."
City officials also invoke the Starbucks/Burger King episode when speaking of Morgan''s these days, but not because of a legacy of ill will. They point to the fact that the main reason they''re so familiar with the necessity of requiring use permits for food business expansion is Christopher himself and his vociferous opposition to the Home of the Whopper.
"It''s kind of interesting that we put these rules in place and now he''s held to them," says Wojtkowski.
But surely, the city fathers believe, none of this can hurt Christopher. After all, there''s no such thing as bad publicity, right?
"Morgan is one of several folks who get a lot of attention because of violations," Fred Meurer says with an indulgent smile. "Morgan is such a character--it has worked to his advantage. Every little Squid works to his advantage because it gets Morgan''s name out there."