Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Prosecuting The Art Of The Preemptive News Conference

The recent news conference by Attorney General Bill Gibbons featured his now familiar political bump and grind in announcing that he is cracking down on the nonpolitical version found in Memphis' “anything goes” strip clubs.

To most observers, his newfound interest in doing something about the sexually explicit behavior long found in Memphis clubs stemmed from his interest in diverting the klieg lights from yesterday’s report by nationally known experts on the failure of local law enforcement – including the prosecutor’s office – to control the sex business in Memphis.

More to the point, in their report, the consultants issued an indictment of their own – ineffectual enforcement and ineffective prosecutorial action. Or as the lead consultant put it, "erratic and ineffective enforcement efforts."

The Office of Planning and Development hired the consultants to draft regulations that balance First Amendment rights and public health and safety concerns. From the beginning of the consultants’ work, the prosecutor’s office seemed a reluctant participant, leaving the impression that it was more concerned about being blamed for part of the problem that in doing something to correct it.

Specifically, the report pointed out that prosecutors failed to seek closure of private VIP rooms at several clubs although they violate state law, failed to consider applying to the strip clubs the state law requiring adult entertainment business to close from midnight until 8 a.m, failed to establish effective methods to deal with repeat offenders and problem establishments, engaged in selective enforcement, and more.

All in all, it’s no wonder that the attorney general was in a rush to call his news conference Monday, the day before the consultants’ report was to be made public in a meeting of members of Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners. (It's also worth mentioning that he was likely also motivated by some fine enterprise reporting by The Commercial Appeal's Trevor Aaronson on the tangled web of private clubs and dubious public decisions.) All in all, the opportunism so apparent in the staging of the news conference was in its way almost as unseemly as the behavior in the clubs.

The fact that flagrant sexual acts take place on stage, in backrooms, in the booths, and in the parking lots at Memphis strip clubs is the worst-kept secret in the city. In watching Attorney General Gibbons rush to get the jump on the consultants’ report, it only made us wish that the Office of Planning and Development would hire consultants to study the climbing violent crime rate in this county.

Here’s our blog post from May 19:

Full Frontal Assault On SOB's Is Called For If Change Is Going To Come

Yesterday, Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners had one of their infrequent joint meetings to discuss a bothersome issue for Memphis – the S-O-B’s.

The news they got was B-A-D.

In this case, we’re referring to S-O-B’s as in sexually-oriented businesses. The news from the consultants hired by the Office of Planning and Development was startling: Memphis is in the top three cities in the U.S. for “anything goes” in its sex clubs.

It’s not what the local legislators were expecting to hear, judging from the grim looks and incredulous comments. But then again, it’s been one of the worst-kept secrets in Memphis that strip clubs here are famous for their uninhibited, graphic behavior.

Over the years, there’s been periodic talk about regulating SOB’s, but it always fades away as suddenly as it begins. Normally, the public’s ire about this issue is raised when a business considers a suburban location. A double standard is seen when it comes to the rest of the city, and despite the talk, there’s been very little done to control the clubs on any level.

Three-time Loser

In that regard, Memphis is a three-time loser, failing in regulation, licensing and zoning. Put simply, it should really come as no surprise that things are completely out of control.

The nationally prominent consultants, after visiting Memphis’s sex clubs, said that Memphis is in the major leagues in public obscenity. Few cities rival ours, and the consultants’ recent work in Detroit showed that the city pales in comparison to Memphis.

In the clubs here, sex is ever present and ever available -- any kind, any way, any cost.

If you want food, you go to the kitchen and order it from the cook, because the woman serving your table is delivering services, but it’s not food. There is “full body contact” between male customers and female dancers on stage, frequently moving to a back room to complete the exchange of cash and bodily fluids.

In other words, if you’re wondering what takes place in these clubs, let your imagination run wild. You’re probably not imaginative enough to compile the list of activities taking place there.

The problem is basic. There are no checks and balances and no serious consequences in the current regulatory system.

Beer Board

The Memphis Beer Board – the regulatory body over these clubs – repeatedly slaps club owners on the wrists, collects the fines that it needs for its operations and sends the club owner back to his business. To the club owner, the fine is just another routine cost of business.

Unlike some cities, in Memphis, there is no “three strikes and you’re out” regulation, but even if there were, it’s hard to see the Beer Board applying it.

Here’s the normal scenario: someone is arrested inside a club for drugs or prostitution, usually by one of the only seven vice officers with Memphis Police Department. Notification of the arrest goes to the beer board, which shows a lack of concern that is as much of its make-up as its politically appointed members.

The Beer Board is headed up by Reginald French, plugged-in political operative and Democratic candidate for Shelby County Sheriff. Past performance of the board certainly does nothing to polish his law and order credentials.

Lessons from other cities show that the ones that have been effective in handling the SOB’s rely on a combination of aggressive enforcement of criminal obscenity laws and the type of stringent regulations that the consultants have written for other locales.

National Consultants

Eric Kelly and Connie Cooper, the consultants advising city and county planners on a course of action to control these clubs, have national credentials, and their work has been instrumental in other cities successfully balancing First Amendment issues with the interest of a community to regular SOB’s.

In fact, they wrote the book on this problem. Literally. It’s titled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Regulating Sex Businesses,” and it was released by the American Planning Association.

They tends to reject the term “adult entertainment,” a marketing term invented by the pornography industry, in favor of sexually oriented businesses, because it provides a useful acronym for these enterprises, which pose public health and safety hazards.

They describe activities in Memphis clubs as coming close to legalized prostitution, and it is this aspect of the clubs’ operations that are most troublesome, because two clubs are owned by rival gangs whose dancers may be coerced into working there.

They acknowledge that municipalities can’t legally prohibit sexually oriented businesses from building within their borders, but they can regulate where they are built, such as in commercial or industrial areas and away from schools, parks, playgrounds and churches.


Although recommendations from Mr. Kelly and Ms. Cooper won’t be presented until next month, several themes have already emerged in meetings discussing what could be done to help with this problem in Memphis. One, regulatory oversight should be removed from the ineffectual Beer Board and given to a public agency prepared to enforce and punish; two, existing zoning ordinances need to be fine tuned to restrict the location of these clubs and their operations; and three, clubs should be required to get a license or permit.

Surprisingly, none of the clubs is required to get a permit to get into the sex business. The required permit is to sell beer and food only, although the dancers have to get a permit. To compound enforcement efforts, if codes enforcement officials cite the businesses into court for violations, the maximum fine that can be levied against them is $50, because the Tennessee Legislature has refused to allow higher fines for code infractions.

Meanwhile, there are primary three local owners of these SOB’s, and they interchange ownership frequently with quit claim deeds so that codes regulations can’t be enforced in any meaningful way. Every time property ownership is changed, the clock starts running all over again.


In other words, there are plenty of changes that need to be made if Memphis is to get serious about these problems, but the ability of cities to have some control over these businesses has widened as a result of U.S. Supreme Court rulings over the past 20 years.

Lately, the Office of Planning and Development has been showing a more aggressive side in its leadership, bringing in nationally known experts to help with issues from tax freezes to Broad Street revitalization to a new development code to sexually-oriented businesses. But high-quality information means nothing if elected officials don’t act on it.

Mr. Kelly and Ms. Cooper have exposed the ugly underbelly of Memphis to the light, and hopefully, government officials will take strong action to control the illegal activities in these clubs. Not only is it needed to address public health and safety issues, it’s needed to eradicate the ugly whispers in the halls of government about influence exerted by these club owners.

In the end, that’s the most insidious problem of all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Talk about Memphis having "prestige" and national attention. Our shake joints are famous across the United States for being almost completely unregulated. Memphis strip joints used to be mentioned on the Howard Stern. We're a poor city with paradoxes. A million churches and a million liquor stores. Buckle of the bible belt and home of the most degenerate clubs in the nation. That definitely makes us distinct.
Why don't we just embrace what we're actually good at and legalize prostitution and drugs. I've been to both Amsterdam and Montreal. Both those cities are a lot nicer than Memphis. Seems to work for them. In fact Amsterdam is the manifestation of smart growth. 60% of city is single, most under the age of 35, and extremely high percentage immigrants. Let's do it! Legalize prostitution and drugs. Regulate and tax the shit of them, then build parks, develop downtown some more, and bribe a pro-football team. We'll be big time then. Screw Austin, we have whores and hash houses!!