CITY HALL — The owner of The Hump, the Santa Monica sushi restaurant where, until recently, an endangered species of whale was on the menu, has already publicly admitted to violating the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Charges have been filed. The restaurant, in its own way, has even said it is sorry, issuing a statement that included the phrase, “We sincerely apologize” while also noting, “whale meat … in Japan is widely served as a delicacy.”
Now the question is, “What move, if any, will the city of Santa Monica make?”
Because the restaurant leases space in a City Hall-owned building at the Santa Monica Airport, its fate is in the hands of the seven-member City Council, which is set to discuss the restaurant’s future in a closed session meeting March 23.
It’s already clear the discussion will be lively one, with council members expressing drastically different views on The Hump since the federal charges against the restaurant were announced last week.
In a probe initiated by the producers of the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Cove,” which is about dolphin slaughter in Japan, federal authorities obtained evidence they say proves the restaurant was serving Sei whale meat to customers.
Mayor Pro Tem O’Connor told the Daily Press she believes the federal charges, and the potential $200,000 fine, are punishment enough.
“Shutting it down — I know that doesn’t serve the many people who work there and would be out of a job in one of the toughest economies we’ve had in decades,” she said.
“There are lots of people with jobs that are going to be hurt and they had nothing to do with the decision to serve the whale. Nothing.”
At least one council member sees things differently.
“I’m for throwing their ass out today, not tomorrow,” the person said in an interview Monday. The council member asked not to be named, citing an unwillingness to discuss publicly a topic that could be the focus of future litigation.
While the council has the authority to weigh in on lease agreements, it’s unclear exactly what options the council would have if it wanted to act to end The Hump’s run.
Councilmember Richard Bloom said he was waiting to learn what the council’s legal options for dealing with The Hump will be before taking a stance. He said the council has not yet received legal advice on whether it could terminate the lease because of the federal allegations.
But he added: “There are those out there who, for very good reason, would like us to act quickly and with a very heavy hand and I am not unsympathetic to that viewpoint, frankly.”
City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said only that her office sent a “notice to cure” the lease violation last week and that the council will be giving its lease negotiator directions on March 23.
The Hump and its sister restaurant, Typhoon, have been seeking to re-negotiate lease extensions with City Hall, according to a source close to the negotiations.
Real estate attorney Rosario Perry, who is not involved with The Hump’s lease, said the ongoing lease negotiations could mean the council will be able to exert financial leverage over the restaurant if it wants to send a message. But he said City Hall would probably have a hard time evicting the restaurant based solely on the federal whale meat charges. Most lease violations, he said, are “curable,” meaning tenants can usually avoid eviction if they put a stop to the violation.
“My best thought is that the city would have a hard time evicting the tenant based on the one illegal sale, but the city might have more pressure to move the tenant out by insisting on a higher gross rent percentage,” he said.