By Terry Rodgers
Children’s Pool beach, the epicenter of a longstanding controversy over a colony of harbor seals, has been invaded by a different species: Vendors hawking hats, T-shirts and other merchandise.
In response, the San Diego Parks & Recreation Department issued new rules last December that limit to two the number of permits for so-called First Amendment vendors at Children’s Pool. Nonprofit groups wishing to set up tables on the sidewalk near the stairways leading to the beach must compete under a lottery system for monthly permits that cost $50.
Despite the new permit requirements, little has changed at the beach that each week attracts thousands of visitors. People come to watch the seals, to stroll along the crescent-shaped seawall, or, much to the consternation of animal-rights activists, to frolic on the beach near the skittish seals.
Tables set up by non-profit groups, or others whose primary interest appears to be making money, add to the carnival atmosphere. Some vendors have permits, but others do not.
City officials confirmed that no one has been cited for violating the new rules, but neither Parks Director Stacey LoMedico or City Attorney Jan Goldsmith would grant an interview to explain why.
“We will decline comment beyond what we have already provided given our workload,” City Attorney spokeswoman Gina Coburn responded in an e-mail.
Goldsmith also declined to provide any documents, including e-mails or memos, showing how the new rules were established or how it was determined the regulations comply with recent court rulings regarding free speech requirements under the U.S. Constitution.
Goldsmith’s staff denied two requests under the California Public Records Act, contending that all internal documents on the topic were exempt from disclosure because they were either ”attorney-client confidential communications” or “working product” not in final draft form.
Attorney Bryan Pease, founder of the San Diego-based Animal Protection and Rescue League, whose organization has staffed a table at Children’s Pool for at least the past five years, said city officials aren’t eager to explain the new permit requirements because it’s highly likely they would be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.
A court recently struck down a similar lottery-based permit system that the city of Los Angeles had established for free speech groups at the famous Venice Beach boardwalk, Pease said.
Pease has more than a little expertise on the topic. In 2006, he successfully challenged a citation issued by lifeguards to an Animal Protection and Rescue League staffer. The activist had set up a table to distribute literature and accept donations for the group’s longstanding crusade to protect the harbor seals. A state judge who heard the case ruled that Section 57.01 of the San Diego Municipal Code, which regulates nonprofit or charitable groups in public areas, was unconstitutional.
The Animal Protection and Rescue League is simply ignoring San Diego’s new permit requirements, and so far enforcement authorities, including lifeguards and police, have looked the other way.
A spokesperson for 1st District Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, who represents La Jolla, said she was unavailable to answer questions on the issue because of a hectic schedule.
Children’s Pool isn’t the only San Diego oceanfront park now governed by the lottery permit system. Three free speech tables are allowed at Ellen Browning Scripps Park near La Jolla Cove, and one table is allowed along the boardwalk in both Mission Beach and Pacific Beach. Parks officials said they have been granting permits and collecting fees at each of the sites where they are allowed.
The San Diego City Council has never voted on the new regulations, which were put into place by parks officials under authority granted to them by existing city ordinances, said Rachel Laing, a spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders.
“This permit process did not require council authorization,” Laing said in an e-mail. “It’s a process that’s been used in other city spots, i.e. Balboa Park, quite successfully to prevent a bazaar-like atmosphere in some cases, and, as in this place (Children’s Pool), to keep the right-of-way from being blocked.”
Some La Jollans are not satisfied with the apparent stalemate over the free speech tables.
Mount Soledad resident Phyllis Minick, a member of the La Jolla Parks & Beaches Committee, offered a proposal at the group’s June 27 meeting to find a way to move the activists on both sides, pro-seal and pro-beach access, away from Children’s Pool.
“This is a beautiful public beach and residential area and it shouldn’t be littered with sales tables and signs,” Minick said. “Maybe I’m dreaming, but wouldn’t it be nice if people could have free speech without shouting at each other?”
Committee members are exploring her idea and will report back soon to the full group.