After some debate, the City Council formed an ad hoc committee Tuesday night to look into how officials could or should respond if Sutter Health moves ahead with plans to close San Leandro Hospital and its emergency room.
In other action at Tuesday night's regular meeting, the council heeded critics and decided to study instead of adopting a zoning change proposed by city staff that would ban recreation and entertainment in San Leandro's industrial zone.
That issue relates directly to San Leandro's long-running court battle with the Faith Fellowship Worship Center.
Possible hospital closure called a 'disaster'
Mayor Stephen Cassidy proposed the ad hoc committee to study the possible hospital closure, calling the shutdown a potential "disaster" for the community.
Councilwoman Joyce Starosciak question what such a committee could hope to accomplish and ended up voting no vote on the motion to form the study group.
Councilwoman Diana Souza, who worried that too much staff time would be devoted to the study, abstained. The measure passed with five votes.
Cassidy, Vice Mayor Michael Gregory and Councilwoman Ursula Reed will serve on the ad hoc group, which forms amid rumors of a possible deal that might keep the hospital or at least its emergency room open.
Whether there is anything to the rumors and what role the city might play remain to be seen, but Cassidy took the position that officials should at least attempt to influence the outcome.
Debate over ban on fun -- and faith? -- in the industrial zone
The crux of the city's battle with the Faith Fellowship -- a congregation that has outgrown its Manor Street location -- is that San Leandro's zoning code had allowed entertainment and recreational uses in its industrial areas while the church was not allowed to relocate there.
That triggered a lawsuit in which the Fellowship argued that it was denied a permit because it was a religious group -- which, it asserts, runs afoul of a federal law designed to help churches win such disputes with local authorities.
The case has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and back with Faith Fellowship being given the upper hand in a Wall Street Journal analysis of the case in November.
What's all this got to do with the zoning change considered last night?
Plenty, according to Deborah Fox, a specialist with the Meyers Nave law firm which is representing the city in the case.
Fox said that in the next stage in the case a federal judge will examine whether the city's zoning code is unfair to Faith Fellowship.
Fox told the council that the judge will look at the code as it exists at the time of the trial, not as it existed when the case began.
"So changes today will affect the litigation," Cassidy said by way of question, and Fox agreed.
The inference would be that if San Leandro prohibits all recreational and entertainment uses in industrial zones, the city could argue that it treats religious congregations the same as other assembly.
Opposition to this CYA strategy
But the proposal before the council has met with solid opposition. The planning commission has already rejected the idea, putting city staff in the unusual position of urging the council to overrule its own advisory process.
Several speakers opposed the change at Tuesday's meeting.
They ranged from city critic Marga Lacabe, who blogged about the issue, to civic booster Dave Johnson of the Chamber of Commerce.
Lacabe and Johnson used identical arguments -- that recreation and entertainment are compatible with the high-tech the city wants to attract, because the young professionals employed by tech firms work odd hours and like to mix work and play close to their offices.
Former planning commissioner and current city council candidate Chris Crow also spoke at the meeting. He noted that the proposed changes basically vindicate the Fellowship's position that, so far as zoning goes, there is no difference between "listening to a preacher and laughing at a comedian."
Caught between a rock and a hard place, the council decided to refer the issue to its rules committee, consisting of Cassidy, Reed and Councilman Jim Prola.
Fox told the council that the clock was ticking and that the changes had to be in place before the trial began -- no date is set yet -- for the new code to be considered.
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