Sunday, May 27, 2007

Joint City-County Action Needed For Best Assault On Sexually-Oriented Businesses

We live in a political time when legal traditions are regularly ignored in pursuit of political agendas, and each time, our system of government is diminished by it.

That’s why we hope the Shelby County Board of Commissioners tread lightly in voting on an ordinance that would set regulations for businesses within Memphis, albeit the worst of Memphis’ businesses - its out of control strip clubs.

Although we sympathize with their intentions to do something to control the lawless strip club culture that’s legendary even in the word of mouth of the rough and tumble industry, the county board of commissioners should resist the temptation to abandon 30 years of legal discretion in their zeal to control the clubs.

It Takes Two

We’ve written several times before about the “anything goes” environments that shocked even the hardened adult-oriented business expert, Eric Kelly, who was brought in by the Office of Planning and Development to develop ways for local governments (emphasize plural) to eliminate the drug, prostitution and health hazards that are prevalent at the strip clubs.

There’s never any greater wake-up call for county commissioners than coming face-to-face with the political realities of their offices. After being elected on substantial campaign promises, they take their oaths of offices and learn quickly that their direct impact within the City of Memphis is limited on its best days and nonexistent on most. As a result, there’s never a deep understanding among city residents of what county commissioners do and how it affects them.

Reality Check

As a result, over the years, commissioners have always welcomed ways to amplify their roles. Unfortunately, ribbon-cuttings for the openings of new health clinics are few and far between, and with the county’s abandonment of the library system, they aren’t involved in those any more.

So, when commissioners are presented with the opportunity to extend their reach in a politically opportune area like strip clubs, it’s easy to appreciate how hard it is for them to resist the chance to pass an ordinance that would mandate business rules within Memphis.

While we question the ultimate legality of such an action, whether it’s legal or not, it’s just bad governance.

That’s Why They’re Cities

Memphians elect City Council members to set rules and regulations for the businesses within their city limits, and normally, this is done through joint actions in areas like zoning, construction codes and health codes. While it is a cumbersome and frustrating structure, it is the one set up by our state constitution.

Once citizens incorporate a city and its citizens elect their representatives, they then have the primary responsibility for determining – hopefully in response to the public’s needs – what rules should be established for businesses operating within that city, whether that city is Collierville or Memphis.

Even if there is a legal basis for arguing that Shelby County Government has the power to impose its will within Memphis, it should resist the Siren’s call of political expediency, because it flies in the face of legal advice to county officials for four decades.

That said, as for the board of commissioners, we feel their pain.

But Who’s Laughing

For years, enforcement over the strip clubs – vested largely with the Memphis Beer Board – has been a joke. On occasion after occasion, Beer Board members acted more like investors in the clubs than citizens protecting the quality of life in their city’s neighborhoods.

That’s why there’s the widespread opinion in the community that a cozy relationship exists between strip club owners and city elected officials. If a majority of City Council members are serious about ethics reform – and it’s increasingly looking like they’re not – they should start with stronger regulations for sexually-oriented businesses.

And if Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton is serious about running for reelection, he should once and for all show the kind of leadership that responds to the concerns of neighborhood leaders who have to deal with the fallout from these clubs.

Putting It On Record

At this point, rather than pass a questionable ordinance, we think the Shelby County Board of Commissioners should make sure this is a key issue in the upcoming city elections. They can do this by making City Council put up or shut up, and we think they do it by amending existing joint codes and put Memphis City Council members on the spot.

With passage by the county of a joint ordinance or amendment to a joint ordinance, the county commissioners force the Council members out into the open, especially those who behind the scenes protect strip club owners and take their money.

We are willing to bet that if the county commissioners take such action and send it across to City Hall, City Council Chairman Tom Marshall will happily add it to the agenda. And in this way, City Council members will have to take a public stand, and if they vote against it, we will finally know if the rumors about club owners owning council members are true.

Here's our post from a year ago on these clubs:

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.


WTaylor said...

I for one am in favor of a move against the mafia SOB owners. They are riff raff and need to be put under control.

After reading your article though, I am not sure that Memphis' culture of corruption will allow it to happen. I am hoping that we can galvanize the people to support this legislation

Anonymous said...

Did we really need to hire consultants to tell us our strip clubs the wildest in the nation? That was said over 8 years ago on the Howard Stern show.

Since our tax base is declining, couldn't we legal drugs and prostitution, then tax and regulate it? Isn't Memphis especially known for decedence and debauchery? That's what Craig Brewer presents to the world. Let's make lemonade out of lemons.

As for prostitution, apparently the police moved the street walkers off of Lamar between Knight Arnold and Getwell. It was wild. Prostitutes were wearing majorette outfits and waving at people driving by. The problem is they migrated to Bellevue. There are street walkers within 1/2 mile of Hamilton. Nothing gets kids more excited about going to school than getting a piece of tail on the way there. Way to go Blue Crush! Do we really need a computer to tell us there are prostitutes by no tell hotels?

I forgot to mention Bellevue/South Parkway as the most vibrant neighborhood in Memphis. At 7:30 am you see Mexicans, Somalis, poor black people, white prostitutes, little kids going to school, crackheads, and the occassional white, Graceland tourist. The shell station there has a great plate lunch.

But back to the subject at hand. Why are we complaining about Plantinum Plus when there are hundreds of prostitutes spread across the city. Its like your campaigning against the horrors of decaf coffee when everybody is drinking straight coffee.

You are not looking at why there are so many Platinum Plus type places. There is a high a demand and a large labor pool. If you can replace those stripping and prostitution jobs with other low skill jobs be my guest.

Here is a simple solution where everyone can win. Southeast of Memphis is an area that is still pretty empty and in the Memphis growth plan. Build an exit off of Nonconnah parkway out by Forrest Hill Irene and have that road go south until you almost get to the Mississippi state line. This would be the only road into this area and a police precinct would be placed there. Zone the area for hotels, strip clubs, and gas stations but keep the property taxes high. Legalize, regulate, tax the formerly illicit things that happen there. Strictly enforce all other laws. Safety is a prime concern, especially for all the tourist that will be going there. It would be like on the show "The Wire" when the police created Hampsterdam, an area of legalized drugs sales. Crime fell around the area and quality of life improved. Social service agencies could easily find and provide services to their target clients. Most importantly, demand, which will never be eliminated, will be met in the least destructive way. I say be smart and build "Tittytown". Otherwise keep paying consultants to tell us the obvious.

W Taylor said...

Anon 2:36PM said:
Isn't Memphis especially known for decedence and debauchery?

What's that about Memphis being in the "Bible Belt"?

Even if the city wanted to do your idea, it would require a change in the state constitution.

Either way, I don't like the idea. I think we should kinda like enforce the law and not put up with this crap. Come down on the criminals with an iron fist.

Someone remind me why this is the bible belt again?

Smart City Consulting said...

We're not opposed to enforcing prostitution laws either, but that hardly is reason enough to ignore the drugs being sold at these strip clubs, the health problems that emanate from there, or the unreported beatings - almost to death - of dancers and patrons.

And it doesn't take a change in any Constitution that we know of for a city to set regulations over strip clubs. We're not restricing First Amendment rights; we're simply passing rules that put strip clubs where they don't destroy neighborhoods or commercial areas and where they actually adhere to the laws that are already on the books.

This isn't about the Bible Belt, since cities across the U.S. have already taken control of this industry to prevent it from becoming malignant, and these cities aren't in the Bible Belt at all. And if concern about these out of control strip clubs is supposed to be an indictment of the Bible Belt, why have they been a part of this city for decades? It's not about the Bible Belt, it's about quality of life and putting these kinds of clubs in the industrial areas where they belong and making sure that the behavior doesn't include sex, infection, drugs, etc.

W Taylor said...

@ Smart City Consulting

I was agreeing with you and disagreeing with the anonymous poster who was basically calling for legal prostitution which would require a change to the constitution.

I hope that these places are regulated and stop being a nuisance, but with our "honest" leadership, I am not very hopeful

Smart City Consulting said...

W. Taylor:

Sorry for the confusion. We were addressing our comments more to anonymous also.

Anonymous said...

One of the interesting things about social problems in any society is when a culture decides to define an activity as a "social problem." Clearly we are now seeing the trouble of SOBs elevated to the level of "social problem" as opposed to an isolated inconvenience or eyesore having an impact on a few individuals.

What I am getting at is what I see as the Columbine effect in such social definitions. Prior to the school shootings in Columbine, the death of children in schools was frequent and troubling to those affected; however it was not necessarily defined by our society as a "social problem,' having in impact on the larger population. When a large number of white kids got shot in Columbine and West Side HS in Jonesboro, AR, school shootings clearly were elevated to a "social problem."

We are now seeing the same thing with SOBs in Memphis. For some time now clearly there has been concern about SOBs in Memphis as is the case in other communities; however, is has not risen to the level of a social problem, and deserving of action by the county commission, until the threat of the opening of an SOB in the predominantly white community of Cordova became a possibility.

Now the white establishment is getting the pressure to do something about it. Isn't it interesting how racial politics playout in the modern world?


Anonymous said...

Isn't it interesting how everything in Memphis comes down to race? In most other cities not everything revolves around the axis of black/white. Yet in Memphis it always does. Always.
Very discouraging, and frankly, if you were someone contemplating opening a business or expanding or relocating, where would you pick? Memphis?.... or perhaps Nashville or Charlotte or Knoxville or Greenville, SC, or.....?

On the subject of strip clubs, I'm not a prude at all, other cities have these clubs, but the situation in Memphis was out of hand completely, and this blog is correct in that there is a widely held impression that these clubs operate with impunity because they have considerable influence, probably bought, with the beer board and city council. Memphis politicians, trading influence for cash and favors??? Perish the thought.

Anonymous said...

Just a few points of clarification:

The proposal that is forthcoming at the County Commission is to adopt the state statutes regulating SOBs. the statutes allow county's to do this unless the municipalities have their own ordinance. These statutes have been court-tested and would strengthen the regulation of these clubs.

However, the city has an ordinance that was struck down by the 6th circuit. Proceeding with adoption of the state statutes will require that the County, including the Sheriff, be responsible for regulating the clubs. For this to happen, the City Council would have to rescind its existing ordinance (takes three separate votes) and agree not to adopt another ordinance, so that the county ordinances would apply in the city. The intention has always been to have a joint effort, just not neccessarily a joint ordinance. This is a workable approach if the politics between the city and county and MPD and the Sheriff's office can be worked out.

The other approach, as Smart City points out, is a joint ordinance, which may be more feasible. In either case, the efforts of the county commission will be fruitless if there is not buy-in and cooperation from the city.

Mike Carpenter
County Commissioner

mike said...

I did research for a story coming up in the Mian Street Journal, and pretty much everyone I talked with made it clear that the weak spot as far as control and punishment seems to be the Beer Board. Licenses/permits get mysteriously approved and no one can say who or how. Proof of violation in the application process seems to disappear or not get taken into account. Ongoing violations don't get licenses yanked.

The same can often be said for the County Code Enforcement office.

Public attention needs to be focused on those two bureaucracies, and better transparency, accountability and regulation is called for.

Anonymous said...

Choosing a remote area and zoning it for strip clubs while selective enforcing prostitution laws kind of solves this problem. You can have law enforcement, health clinics, and outreach programs in the remote location. Everyone wins aside religous folks who's sensibilities maybe offended. All the rest of this focus on strip clubs is just grandstanding and people don't want to address the larger problem of widespread prostitution. I don't really care too much about Platnium Plus when kids going to Hamilton have to walk by prostitutes. That crap wouldn't be put up with at Whitestation or Germantown. Plus, when are you going to regulate no tell hotels? Those are sexually oriented businesses.

W Taylor said...

They say "out of sight, out of mind"

I think George is right in his comments above that this has been the case with these sinister SOBs.

People in Cordova and Germantown typically do no have to travel the filthy Brooks Road corridor, live far away from it and hence it is of no concern to them.

I think that is the major problem. As we have seen, the people on Cordova do not want a SOB in their neighborhood - and for good reason as they know the kind of filth that it draws. However, those of us saddled with these SOBs are just forced to live with these SOB that are not only eyesores but nuisances.

One thing I will say about communities like Cordova is that they will stand up and say "NOT IN MY BACK YARD!" get organized , protest, write letters and so on.

That is why an SOB is an unlikelihood in Cordova while prostitutes run up and down the street with impunity on Brooks Road.

Until the businesses in that area say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH, (they are by MOVING) then it will continue and the aerotropolis dream will continue to be just that...a DREAM

Anonymous said...

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