PICO BLVD — A local fraternal order has filed suit against City Hall for allegedly taking burial spaces in Woodlawn Cemetery, Mortuary and Mausoleum reserved for its brethren and selling them to members of the public.

According to a complaint filed on April 23 by the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks in Santa Monica, most of the roughly 500 spaces in a plot deeded to the Elks 100 years ago have been co-opted by City Hall for private use.

Adding insult to injury, the doors to the columbarium — a place to store urns — was padlocked shut and 16 non-Elks have been buried in Block 16, an area on the northeast corner of Woodlawn that was deeded to the Elks in 1912, said John Peterson, an attorney for the Elks.

City Hall was served with the complaint on Wednesday.

“These are rights that the Elks have enjoyed for decades,” Peterson said.

The lawsuit was a long time coming.

According to the complaint, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie sent a letter to the Elks on Nov. 25, 2009 informing the club that City Hall intended to claim “unimpeded rights” to all but 50 of the grave sites in Block 16. The niche spaces in the columbarium were also left to the Elks.

The Elks argue that the spaces belong to the lodge, and were deeded as such by R.C. and Frances Gillis on May 28, 1912. That property included more than just Block 16, but over the years, the Elks allowed City Hall to use other pieces of the property.

Although the Elks later transferred the property to City Hall, primarily for ease of upkeep, the action was taken with the understanding that all of the spots encompassed by Block 16 would remain with the lodge.

The Elks responded in March 2010 asking City Hall not to take the sites, but a follow-up letter from Deputy City Attorney Ivan Campbell spelled out City Hall’s intentions.

“The city considers Block 16 to be city property and will continue to operate the Cemetery accordingly … ,” Campbell’s letter is quoted in the complaint.

The Elks waited to file suit, hoping that the situation would resolve itself, until what Peterson describes as “a couple of provocative actions” on the part of City Hall made them unable to turn the other cheek.

The first was the alleged padlock on the doors of the columbarium, which shut the space to the Elks and everyone else.

The second was the realization that City Hall had already moved forward with their plans to use the sites, and that 16 of them had been sold to people without approval from the Elks.

In the lawsuit, the Elks are demanding that City Hall compensate them for the loss of the property and loss of revenue from the spaces as well as attorneys fees and the cost of the suit.

Deputy City Attorney Alan Seltzer did not wish to comment on the pending litigation.

“We are aware that the complaint was filed,” Seltzer said. “We’ll review it, and we think that while delayed in coming, we look forward to the court deciding this once and for all.”

The Elks have operated in Santa Monica since 1904. According to their website, the lodge boasted 196 members in April 2011.

The Elks began as a group of actors in New York City who played a drinking game called “the cork game.” Players eventually became known as the “Jolly Corks,” and a large drinking society formed with headquarters over a saloon on Delancey Street, according to the Elks national website.

In February 1868, the organization decided to turn its attention to nobler things, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was formed.


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