VIDEO: Jonathan Bloom's report on Albany Hill cross controversy
It's been that way for more than 45 years, but if the Albany City Council has its way, the cross' days on Albany Hill could be numbered.
"The Albany City Council was dismayed to learn that, in a departure from historical practice, the cross on Albany Hill was lit by the Albany Lions Club on Monday, September 11th," said Albany Mayor Peggy McQuaid at the start of the September 18th city council meeting. "I want to reiterate that neither the City Council nor the City of Albany endorses the lighting of the cross for any occasion, religious or nationalistic."
The Albany Lions Club has maintained the cross since it was built in 1971 -- two years before Albany Hill became a public park. When the city acquired the land, it came with an easement for the Lions Club to maintain the cross. The club points out that the easement also protects the parkland against being developed in the future. But it puts the city into a bit of a quandary.
"We understand that the religious symbol on public parkland is a violation of the Constitution, both state and Federal," said Nicole Almaguer, who serves as Albany's assistant manager, and is also the city clerk.
In legal battle over a cross in a public park, the City of Albany and the local Lions Club each say the other is violating the Constitution. pic.twitter.com/Ibgj5VE2ws— Jonathan Bloom (@BloomTV) September 26, 2017
Almaguer says the city tried to negotiate with the Lions Club for the removal of the cross after a grassroots effort started by the East Bay Atheists three years ago sent a flurry of phone calls and letters into City Hall from residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the park.
But an attorney for the Lions Club says the negotiations fell apart after city staff asked PG&E to inspect the electrical wires that power the cross, strung through a grove of eucalyptus trees on the hillside. After inspecting the wires, workers turned off the power.
"They don't want to follow the law for acquiring property," said attorney Robert Nichols. "They want to essentially twist the Lions Club's arm by taking the property away."
The city maintains that its request to PG&E was made for safety reasons.
"The city was very concerned about fire hazard," Almaguer said, "Given the proximity of homes, and the eucalyptus trees, and the drought."
Nichols says the Lions Club would like the city to come back to the negotiating table and offer reasonable compensation for the expense of moving the cross to private property. But the club is also taking a different approach: On September 11, Nichols filed suit in federal court, claiming infringement of the club's First Amendment rights to free speech and religion, and requesting damages that include several months worth of PG&E bills.
"The litigation against the city is very disappointing," Almaguer said, and added that with the lawsuit now pending, the city would not return to informal negotiations with the Lions Club.
"Unfortunately, that now has to occur through the judicial process," she said.