When Nadia Kean-Ayub reached out to some friends for help organizing an event, she didn’t know she was on the verge of creating yet another scandal for Coronado.
Her group Rainbow Spaces was interested in holding an alternative prom for LGBTQ kids from across the South Bay. A former dispatcher for the Police Department, Kean-Ayub figured the Nautilus Room overlooking the bay would be the ideal spot. She’d held a similar event at the privately-owned Hotel del Coronado without problem in the past.
The city approved the application for the alternative prom. The next day, though, the city denied it. A staffer had concluded the event was not an acceptable use of public space. They had decided it was a “youth honoree” — on par with a birthday, quinceañera or bar mitzvah — and those are prohibited in the community center except for residents of Coronado.
The staffer told the group in an email that the purpose of the city’s policy was not to be discriminatory but to give Coronado residents more opportunities to enjoy the community center.
Confused by the rationale — the city’s policy allows for private parties and the Nautilus Room appeared to be available on the requested day — Kean-Ayub petitioned the Council to intervene at a public hearing.
“It struck me as a way to eliminate people they don’t want on the island,” she said in an interview.
Last year, the Coronado Unified School District came under fire after high school basketball players tossed tortillas at an opposing team from Escondido. Coronado trustees fired the coach as calls for his punishment mounted. Just a few weeks ago, the city’s director of recreation and golf services resigned after a video surfaced alleging he and his wife made racist comments at a shopping mall in Newport Beach.
The soirée that Rainbow Spaces was proposing also seemed poised to explode into the culture war. A group of mostly Latino children wanted to hold an event in an predominately White town where they could dance and socialize without being judged. Congressman Scott Peters fired off a letter. One local TV station was live at City Hall last week with a question: “Will the prom go on?”
Yes, it will. The City Council sprang into action at the April 19 meeting and overrode the staff’s decision to deny the application by making an exception for Rainbow Spaces. Elected officials then went a step further. To avoid disputes like this in the future, they requested that the city manager re-evaluate Park & Rec policies and look for “inconsistencies.”
Councilman Bill Sandke later told me that he was taken aback by the city’s denial of the alternative prom.
“This is a personal thing for me because I have a trans child,” he said. “I would hope we no longer exclude off-island activities like that.”
Elected officials sent a message to anyone watching that it took complaints of bias and unfairness seriously. Councilman Marvin Heinze put the blame on how city staff interpreted the rules. But it was particularly interesting considering that last year the room had been rented out by a conservative group that doesn’t appear to be based in Coronado either.
The city may have escaped another controversy with some deft management, but its experience provides a lesson for others that have similar policies on the books.
Coronado is not the only municipality that makes distinctions like these between residents and non-residents, creating hierarchies based on geography in the process. Two notable exceptions are the city and county of San Diego. But most offer residents a discount and preference when it comes to room rentals on the justification that local taxpayers already provide for facility maintenance and deserve to be prioritized.
Solana Beach, for instance, has two community centers. Fletcher Cove, which overlooks the ocean, is reserved for residents, while La Colonia, which is further inland, is open to anyone. That means Fletcher Cove, remodeled in 2011, might sit empty some days, even though a non-resident wants to use it.
“We’re under no requirement to maximize its use,” said Kirk Wenger, the city’s recreation manager. To date, no one has complained, he added. “Even if they did, it wouldn’t carry much weight because they don’t live here.”
Park & Rec policies do change over time, for one reason or another. A few years ago, San Marcos stopped charging residents and non-residents a different rate because, Krystal Mainprize, the city’s recreation coordinator, told me, applicants would lie about their address or use a friend’s or family member’s.
It’s completely reasonable that a city wouldn’t want to spend its time investigating where people really reside, turning clerks into cops.
Another official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told me that his city used to steer coming-of-age ceremonies for Jewish boys and girls to other locations by adding conditions to the permit that other applicants didn’t get. The stated reason was that kids were more likely to create a mess. But he recalled complaining at the time, “Guys, you can’t do that shit,” and the practice came to an end.
Coronado’s facility use policy dates back to 2005, with the development of the current community center, and officials at the time said they wanted to strike the right balance between these various forces — fees as well as competition for the space. Cost recovery was a part of the conversation.
By 2015, city staff were reporting to the Council that non-residents were using the Nautilus Room 35 percent of the time but generating 77 percent of the revenue. Residents wanted non-residents to have a shorter booking window. Staff warned that giving residents more priority over the space would have an impact on the city’s finances.
This tension extends beyond the community center. In 2012, the Council had a debate over how to better manage the growing number of beach weddings and loud music. At the meeting, a Coronado surfer bemoaned that the events were ruining his vibe. Then-Councilwoman Barbara Denny said the city was “giving away our beach, making us what they consider a bargain basement beach for private events … that is not the Coronado that we want to live in.”
Coronado, as the Union-Tribune reported in 2018, has a love/hate relationship with tourists and day-trippers. The city had a $1 bridge toll until 2002, and some candidates at the time proposed that officials bring it back to both mitigate traffic and pay for more stuff. One candidate ran on a “Residents First, Residents Only” campaign. He lost.
The U-T also noted that tourists contribute more than $14 million in hotel tax revenues annually — or more than a quarter of the city’s general fund — and account for a large portion of the $3 million in sales tax revenue the city collects. The fiscal 2019 state controller’s report for Coronado shows approximately $6.7 million in recreation expenditures and approximately $2.1 million in recreation fees.
Sandke told me, while he sympathizes with the complaints about traffic, he believes the city’s natural beauty should be shared.
And even though it doesn’t get as much attention, there is a class divide within the city’s own boundaries. Shortly after pushing through the Rainbow Spaces application, the City Council also entertained public feedback for the redevelopment of Coronado Cays Park. It’s approximately 15 acres and has seen increasing usage by youth sports.
Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, one man complained “the village,” meaning the northern part of the city, was dominating public space in the Cays. The park was meant to be a passive place, he added, but staff had turned it into an active one. “That’s not fair,” he said. To which another speaker responded: “One zip code for the city. Lots of users. Lots of opportunities.”
The Rainbow Spaces permit is now a settled issue, but new questions and problems have emerged.
After watching the meeting last week, a Coronado retiree and watchdog shared with me public records he obtained showing that radio host Carl DeMaio’s Reform California rented out the Nautilus Room in August for an event opposing critical race theory in schools. Brad Gerbel, who also worked on Mayor Richard Bailey’s campaign, told city staff that Reform California, a general purpose political committee, was a nonprofit.
The group ended up getting a discount that’s reserved for residents working on behalf of civic and social welfare, even though it’s based in San Diego and the vast majority of its donors live outside Coronado, according to a review of state campaign finance data.
Reform California paid $500 for a two-hour event on a Monday. Bailey ended up speaking at the event, but told me that he had no role in organizing it. Gerbel didn’t return a request for comment, nor did the city manager.
In the meantime, Rainbow Spaces is looking at a roughly $3,100 bill for its five-hour event on a Friday night. Kean-Ayub said the city is now requiring that she hire security.
Costs aside, she and her supporters are just happy the event will go through as planned. Alexia Palacios-Peters, a Coronado resident and mother who’s running for school board, chalked up the dispute to a breakdown in communications. She helped sponsor the alternative prom not for political reasons, she said, but because she wanted to give the kids a venue where they can be themselves.
“If we can create a space where they don’t have to deal with that for one night, that’s significant,” she said.