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Parks & Beaches board faces backlash over comments about Black Lives Matter; will draft code of conduct

The La Jolla Bike Path on Labor Day
The La Jolla Parks & Beaches board faced backlash over some members’ comments about chalk messages drawn on the Fay Avenue Bike Path in support of the Black Lives Matter movement (pictured).
(Stephen Simpson)

Following some controversial statements by two of its members about recent chalk writings on the Fay Avenue Bike Path in support of the Black Lives Matter movement — and the city’s decision not to remove them — the La Jolla Parks & Beaches advisory group dedicated more than an hour of its Oct. 26 meeting to discussing how to proceed.

After hearing from eight members of the public who called for removal of the two board members, Mary Ellen Morgan and Marie Hunrichs, the board ultimately decided to form a working group that would draft a code of conduct, and to seek the opinion of the San Diego city attorney’s office on whether a violation of the board’s bylaws had occurred.

During the 20-member board’s Sept. 28 meeting, Steve Hadley, City Councilwoman Barbara Bry’s field representative, said the chalk writing on the bike path was “political free speech” and that Bry had “asked the mayor, and received assurance, that ... the chalk will not be power-washed off as it was previously.”

For the latest in a string of gatherings, local residents and others took to the La Jolla Bike Path over the weekend to draw messages in support of racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement after neighbors’ previous complaints resulted in similar drawings being removed.

Morgan said she found that decision “very problematic” and asked, “If the city is going to allow unmitigated political expression, does that mean all political expression? … Why are you doing this for Black Lives Matter? This is political speech, and you can’t isolate for racial stuff.”

Hunrichs agreed, saying: “That makes me want to go out and scribble my opinion about other issues. I find this offensive. I have nothing against Black people. To me, all lives matter, including the lives of Black people and Black children and White people. As far as BLM goes, I’ve looked into it and it’s a Marxist organization and I do not agree with it.”

In a statement Oct. 26, board President Ann Dynes said she “subsequently received complaints from members of the public contending that two of our members’ comments critical of the city’s position were racist positions being expressed in an official capacity under our bylaws and calling for removal of these members. I shared these complaints with the members involved and attempted to respond to these complaints. … My explanations were unsatisfactory to these folks, but I did succeed in getting many of them to join us this evening.”

Community members who spoke during the meeting shared their feelings and asked for the removal of Morgan and Hunrichs.

“This kind of public dialogue by those that are charged with making decisions for the greater good is extraordinarily harmful and hurtful to many and diminishes the credibility of the entire board,” Mark Erwin said.

La Jolla native Lindsay Sullivan, who participated in the chalk writing, said: “These are our community members we came out to support when we say Black Lives Matter. It’s a human-rights movement. It’s a social movement. It’s not a political movement.”

Toni Craig-Cox said she wrote a quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. on the bike path that read: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” She said she sent photos of the drawing event to her mother to show “that her baby is loved and supported by the community.”

“The work of the board is secondary to being a leader in the community,” she said. “A good leader thinks about everyone they meet, not just those who look like them or believe what they do. A good leader would not speak out against a movement that urges that minorities be protected just like the majority are. A good leader also understands when they overstep and bravely takes on the consequences of those actions. I do not expect to change the minds of the two board members in question. I do expect them to see that they do not positively serve the community through their comments.”

Morgan and Hunrichs were given a chance to respond.

“It’s very distressing for my name to come up throughout this meeting and be slandered the way I have. However, I would like to express my regret that some people misconstrued my comments last month,” Morgan said. “It is my hope you sincerely hear me: My concern is for the fact that apparently the city will no longer remove messages from the public right of way if they can be construed as public expression. My family has resided in La Jolla since 1923 and, as a longtime resident of La Jolla, I have years of being concerned with the aesthetics of our parks, beaches and rights of way and was disappointed to hear the city decision. … I would have the same concerns if another political message was involved.”

“I have no problem with the Black Lives Matter movement or messages,” she added. “However, this is concerning to me because now the city has allowed this area to be opened up for all political expression; that is the only reason I expressed my distress toward this movement and toward the graffiti and toward the city’s decision in this area. I’m sorry if I offended people, but I am trying to, in my opinion, ... keep La Jolla clean, beautiful and non-confrontational. It was my own opinion and does not reflect La Jolla Parks & Beaches.”

Hunrichs, choking back tears, said: “The city has a responsibility to take care of public property. I didn’t mean to offend anyone ... [but I spoke out because] it’s not the message, it’s where it was put. … When we are talking about the public area, it’s not right to pick certain messages that are OK. … If people support it, that’s fine. I believe in the sentiment that Black people matter; I have Black friends.”

When asked by LJP&B member Sally Miller whether the responses were satisfactory to those in attendance, Dynes said, “The [Zoom] chat box is full of antagonism and angry remarks, so the answer is no.”

Among the commenters, Catherine Cox said after Morgan’s statement that “Black Lives Matter is not confrontational!” After Hunrich’s comments, she added, “You said we are Marxists!” and “Y’all have not heard one thing your community is saying” and “Y’all are not holding yourselves accountable for the hateful words.”

Ruth Leivers said: “I am saddened that Mrs. Morgan continues to state that the Movement for Black Lives is a political organization. This movement is a social movement and may be the largest social movement in our history.”

Led by the motto “conversation vs. confrontation,” UC San Diego Athletic Director and La Jolla Rotary Club member Earl Edwards is on a personal mission to talk about racism.

Many of those who called for the two members’ removal “by force or by resignation” cited the LJP&B bylaws section that states, “The council shall not discriminate or permit discrimination in any manner against any person or class of persons on account of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, medical status, national origin, ethnicity, age, marital status or disability, including without limitation the provision of goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations and the hiring and retention of employees and contractors.”

The bylaws also allow for the removal of members by a two-thirds vote of the board, based on “a preponderance of the evidence, to be in violation of these bylaws.”

LJP&B member Patrick Ahern thanked those who spoke and said the bylaw provision “addresses the council’s actions, but we have no provision to remove these individuals based on their personal comments.”

Dynes agreed that they were personal comments and not intended to represent the board.

Ahern added that the board “takes its responsibility to represent the community in a fair and unbiased manner seriously. We regret the offense that was taken as a result of our members’ comments.”

He made a motion to create a working group to draft a code of conduct that “reinforces our values” and provides an avenue to remove members if the code is violated.

After a lengthy discussion, the board voted to support the working group.

The board also passed a motion by member Jane Reldan to seek the opinion of the city attorney on whether a bylaw violation had occurred that could lead to the removal of the two members.

An update will be provided at the next meeting at 4 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7, online. The board will combine its November and December meetings to accommodate the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. For more information, visit lajollaparksbeaches.org. ◆