(photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — City officials are defending a decision to put several parking meters on Ocean Avenue out of commission for nearly a week over the holidays — a move one man says cost City Hall revenue while inappropriately aiding a religious group that had put up nativity scene displays near the spaces.

The parties involved are the Nativity Scenes Committee, which each year erects 14 life-size displays depicting events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ, and a committee of one, Damon Vix, who set up a solstice display featuring quotes from the founding fathers about the separation of church and state.

The displays were placed in Palisades Park along Ocean Avenue between Arizona Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard for roughly two weeks in December.

The nativity scene displays have been a tradition in Santa Monica since 1953 and are paid for by the committee, which is composed of representatives from local churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association. In the past, City Hall provided electricity and other benefits for the annual displays, however, that practice stopped in the late 1970’s, committee members said.

Vix, a Hollywood prop maker, has been irritated by the nativity scene display and erected his in protest. He believes City Hall should not allow the nativity scenes to be placed in Palisades Park, saying the scenes discriminate against those who are not Christian.

At issue is whether it’s appropriate for City Hall to voluntarily take parking meters in front of religious displays out of commission without asking for reimbursement from the group that put up the displays.

Groups that want to erect displays in Palisades Park must file an application, pay a fee and cover all their own costs, including electricity and parking meter rentals, according to City Hall’s policy. (While the displays don’t take up parking spaces on Ocean Avenue, some groups ask for the spaces in front of their displays to be put off-limits to drivers on certain days in order to give passers by an unobstructed view).

All went according to plan this year, except for one anomaly, said Assistant City Manager Elaine Polachek. The Nativity Scenes Committee leaves its displays up for about a month and this year paid to have 16 meters on Ocean Avenue taken out of commission for 13 days — Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only — at a cost of $852. (City Hall charges $4 per meter per day plus a $20 application fee, city officials said.)

The record rainfall that blanketed Santa Monica for nearly a full week over the holidays, though, threw a kink into the plan.

Because of the downpour, City Hall officials determined it was impractical to post temporary “no parking” signs on the meters on Fridays and weekends, because the signs kept deteriorating in the wet weather, causing confusion among drivers.

So officials decided to take the meters in front of the religious displays out of commission for the remainder of the displays by “bagging” them. When a meter is bagged, a sack is placed over the meter head and a lock is secured so no one can tamper with them.

The Nativity Scenes Committee wasn’t required to pay extra for the additional days of unobstructed viewing the move afforded.

And that has prompted Vix to cry foul.

“Perhaps the city manager should pick up the tab personally instead of the tax paying public,” Vix said, noting that the city lost revenue by shutting down city parking meters in front of the religious displays. “In my opinion, keeping the religious groups completely separate from public, taxpayer-financed government is an absolute necessity. I find it deplorable that the city of Santa Monica would allow itself to be bullied by the Nativity Scenes group to give it preferential treatment by bagging meters in front of the displays, let alone doing it for free.”

But Polacheck said City Hall did everything it could to be fair by offering to “bag” meters in front of Vix’s display as well. There was just one problem: Vix’s display was located by a bus stop where there were no parking meters. He requested the credit anyway, and city staff bagged six meters adjacent to the solstice display, city officials said.

“This is not a subsidy,” Polachek said of City Hall’s decision to bag the parking meters.

In the future, Polachek said the policy will be to bag all parking meters when rented for an extended period of time, as in the case of the holiday displays, and to use the temporary “no parking” signs only when meters will be out of commission for a day or two. Groups wishing to erect a holiday display will still be required to pay for the use of the meters. Bagged meters will be out of commission for the length of the display and those responsible for the displays will have to pay for the entire cost of renting the meters, Polachek said.

Vix said the credit extended this time around to a religious display is a violation of the separation of church and state and is urging City Hall to collect the $384 that he said was written off because of the extra days the city barred people from parking in front of the displays.

Polacheck said it was all much ado about nothing.

“This was an unusual circumstance and we tried to make the best decision that would allow them to continue during that rainy week. We are now very clear on what the policy is heading forward so that no matter rain, sleet, snow or hail, the meters are going to be bagged … This is a public forum and we treat people the same.”

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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