Monterey post under fire.
Thursday, November 11, 2004
First thing Monday morning, before 8am, Mike Rhodes sits with some visitors at a small table in the dim basement bar of the American Legion Post 41 in Monterey, drinking cranberry juice from a small glass.
A seven-year Army veteran now recovering from a back injury, Rhodes is the post commander, and his guests across the table are representatives of the US Army, the Monterey Police Department and City Hall. His lawyer is supposed to be there but could not make it. A liaison from a local neighborhood association is also absent.
The Legion Hall, which is tucked into the forested southern edge of Spaghetti Hill, occupies some prime real estate. But it’s in a figurative bad spot. And Rhodes has to deal with it.
The city of Monterey owns the land under the building and the lease is expired. Sick and tired of having a bar in the neighborhood, the surrounding homeowners have been cranking up a campaign to have the Legion Hall—or just the bar—closed.
Rhodes asks the city hall representative, Robert Cea of the real estate office, what the future might hold for his fellow Legionnaires. “There are some of us walking on pins and needles up here,” he says. “Are we going or are we staying?”
That will be up to the Monterey City Council, which heard the matter at a regular meeting in early October. With two new members, the council will consider the Legion Hall’s fate—that is its lease with the city—in an upcoming closed session, then render its decision in public likely in early 2005.
Rhodes has been meeting with the representatives at this meeting every month as part of a somewhat probationary arrangement set up when the former lease expired in June 2003. Under the now-expired lease that’s gone to “holdover status,” the Legion Hall has certain neighborhood-friendly requirements it must abide. For one thing, it must close at 10pm on weekends. Its patrons have to keep the noise down. Drinking in the parking lot is verboten.
Apparently, the Legionnaires and their guests have been well behaved. The police representative at the Monday morning meeting, Lieutenant Ed Smith, tells Rhodes there have been no complaints called in from the neighborhood. Since soldiers from the neighboring Presidio frequent the Legion bar, Sergeant Major Gene Patton reports from the Army perspective. Although there have been allegations that underage soldiers were served booze in years past, those days are apparently over, and Patton says there are no current problems.
As a non-profit organization, the Legion pays the city one dollar per month in rent. The upstairs social hall is rented out for certain community events, private parties and wedding receptions. It’s also used as a precinct polling place for elections. Rhodes says the legion also sponsors youth sports teams and makes medical equipment, like wheelchairs, available to the public. The neighbors, he believes, are shortsighted.
“They think it’s just a bar,” he says.
Cea says the city has to weigh the rights of the Legion with the demands of the neighborhood when it reviews the lease.
“At this time, consideration is being given to both sides,” he says. “It’s a very sensitive issue.”
Asked whether the Legion has toned things down under the trial lease, he says, “I guess like anything, there’s room for improvement. It’s pretty simple what they have to do. I don’t know why they don’t do it.”
• • •
During the meeting, Cea asks for a copy of the club finances, raising a concern with Rhodes that the city will begin charging the legion a rent based on the assessed value of the property. Rhodes does not know the operating budget, but he knows the group could not afford to pay market rates.
“They might do it off of property value like anybody else and that’s not right because we’re a nonprofit,” he says.
According to Mary Margaret O’Connell, the lawyer for Legion Post 41, the veterans have cleaned up their act, as evidenced by the lack of neighborhood complaints to the police department. In fact, they’re pro-active now, she says.
“The Legion has actually called the police to arrest people when they figured out they were underage or drunk in public,” O’Connell contends.
(According to a city staff report on the matter, there have been two minor complaints in the last year. City staff found the Legion has “substantially complied with the terms and conditions” of its lease.)
O’Connell predicts that the Legion will get to stay and, in fact, argues that the bar should be allowed to stay open later.
“I am confident we’ll either get the same lease or one with some leeway,” she says.
What must be overcome, she says, is an atmosphere of “mutual antagonism” in the neighborhood. Even though the Legion has been keeping the noise down and the hours short, O’Connell says the neighbors are living in the past.
“They’re in a negative reality and my clients are trying to get out of that,” she says.
Several members of the association and neighbors to the Legion Hall are, in fact, veterans themselves. One is a 20-year Navy vet and another retired from the Army as a general. Planning Commissioner and recent city council candidate Bill McCrone graduated from West Point and fought in Vietnam. Tom Bruneau has lived within yards of the Legion Hall since 1987. He’s the president of the Old Town Neighborhood Association and works as a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. Bruneau teaches military officers and his son was a navy officer. He says it’s not the military or veterans that the association opposes, it’s the use of the property.
“Basically there’s a bar in the middle of the neighborhood,” Bruneau says. “Some people use the term ‘incompatible.’”
Bruneau says the neighborhood has changed since he moved there 17 years ago. There are more young families with young mothers who don’t like the idea of a bar around the corner. They ask him why it’s there and why the city only charges a dollar a month rent.
“We in the neighborhood just feel they’ve run amok,” he says. “We have a great neighborhood. We want a better neighborhood. And we want to get along with these guys.”
That said, the association wants the bar to be closed down.
“The city has certain responsibilities,” Bruneau says. “We’ll pressure the city. We’ll go to the meetings. We’ll do whatever you do in a democracy. We’re going to hold their feet to the fire.”