Thursday, December 13, 2007

Council Stripped Of Power Over Clubs

There’s the axiom in the public sector that the organizational chart shouldn’t be based on personalities.

There’s also an axiom that the fundamental principles of local government shouldn’t be abandoned in pursuit of political expediency.

Of course, both of these rules at times succumb to the realities of city and county governments, but the zeal to put the brakes on our out of control strip clubs shouldn’t be the justification to abandon one of those fundamental principles – that City Hall is the appropriate government to set standards and laws for citizens within the city limits.


Normally, the usurping of one government’s prerogatives by another is normally seen in the state legislature’s mandates on Memphians. While the county board of commissioners doesn’t create an equal specter of outside interference, it nonetheless should not try to subsume the appanage of the Memphis City Council.

While we were the first to write about the report being prepared about SOB’s (sexually-oriented businesses) and the need to get our lawless strip club culture under control, the legislation by the county board of commissioners feels less like an attempt to regulate as to vitiate.

The latter is not government’s role. If the business is legal, however, government has the right to issue and enforce regulations within its jurisdiction. The county’s rules apparently started with the aim of regulating, but along the way seems to have been captured by the morality police.

Baking Up New Ordinance

Actually, the Memphis City Council had this political hot potato tossed into its lap by the Herenton Administration, notably City Attorney Elbert Jefferson, who proposed the new strip club ordinance and left the Council to take the heat. In light of the numerous questions remaining to be answered and the research needed on this ordinance, the current Council wisely punted this issue to the next Council.

While it might have been possible for the current Council to resolve this issue before the term and the calendar came to a close, the perception that the ordinance was being rammed through the legislative process was reason enough to put it off until a time when there was ample time for all public questions to be answered.

While some county officials, notably Attorney General Bill Gibbons, were quick to protest the Council’s intentions to take up the issue (instead of acquiescing to the county law), the Council had every right to insist that their questions were answered and to pass its own strip club ordinance. Some of the prosecutor’s efforts to get out in front of this parade may be the result of criticism in the city/county consultant’s report that criticized the office’s lax enforcement of existing laws.

Pleading His Case

Then, too, while the attorney general’s office was complaining about being left out of the city government meetings that led up to the presentation of the proposed ordinance, there are some who said it was ironic since the prosecutors never responded to invitations to participate in the consultant’s report a couple of years ago.

Whatever the case, in response to General Gibbon’s criticisms, the Council asked the Memphis city attorney to meet with his office to obtain its opinions about the law. Central to the Council’s deliberations is the answer to this question: What regulation has more impact on the clubs – the county law that makes violations a Class A and Class B misdemeanor or the city ordinance which has the power to shut down offending clubs.

Primary differences between the laws are that the city law allows topless dancing and beer drinking and the county law bans beer and requires pasties.

City Standards For City Residents

Ultimately, many of us may like the proposed changes in the county law, but at the same time, it just feels like bad governance. Once citizens incorporate a city and its citizens elect their representatives, they then should be given primary responsibility for determining – hopefully in response to the public’s needs, standards and values – what rules should be established for businesses operating within that city, whether that city is Collierville or Memphis.

But while we believe Memphis elected officials are best equipped to set the standards for Memphis, that isn’t to say that the Memphis City Council doesn’t have a lot to prove. 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.

The county’s lack of confidence in City Council’s sincerity in bringing order to these clubs isn’t exactly a thing of fiction. After all, the national consultants said that Memphis is one of three U.S. cities where strip clubs were out of control. In the clubs here, sex was ever present and ever available -- any kind, any way, any cost.

The Problem

If you wanted food in some, you went to the kitchen and ordered it from the cook, because the woman serving your table was also delivering services, but it wasn’t food. There was “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 took place in these clubs, let your imagination run wild. You’re probably not imaginative enough to compile the list of activities that took place there. That’s why there’s the widespread suspicion in Memphis that a cozy relationship exists between strip club owners and city elected officials.

That said, the task is to control illegal activities – prostitution and drug sales – and behavior that produced health risks. It’s not about trying to put the clubs out of business, as tempting as that would be, but to act within the legal framework of court rulings.

Getting Legal

After all, when Memphis City Council a decade ago took this approach to a city ordinance, members ended up in front of a federal judge who asked for their legal justifications for trying to put the clubs out of business.

Within this complex legislative territory, if a majority of City Council members are serious about passage of a strip club ordinance, they need to go the extra step to prove that they are acting in the public’s interest rather than to protect club owners from serious enforcement.

If nothing else, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners has forced this issue out into the open. Now it’s up to the incoming City Council to put it to rest in a way that sends the message that things have changed in city government.

Perhaps, then, we could even dream that a strip club ordinance is just the beginning of a new day in City Hall.


Joe Spake said...

Other than the tax revenue touted by lame duck Councilman Marshall, do the clubs offer anything to improve quality of life or benefit the public interest? The clubs will find away to make money and satisfy their customers, even with pasties and without beer. How about instituting a table dance tax?

Harvey said...

Great post. Thanks for helping me remember that the ordinance isn't about revenge, but about proper government. I definitely have the tendency to bang the holier than thou gavel and its noise drowns out all else. Thanks.

Smart City Consulting said...

Joe: We think we have to be careful about making the judgment on whether the business improves quality of life or benefits the public interest. That always opens up the question to whose quality of life and who defines the public interest. If the business is legal, the public sector's role is regulation, not putting out of business what we don't like. If it's to do the latter, we have several businesses that we'd like to get on some one's hit list.

As for the table dance tax, we're for taxing anything that moves at these clubs - on top of the table or not.

Anonymous said...

I used to only go to Platinum Plus once every 3 or 4 years. My friends and I knew the place was wild (as did the Japanese business men who came to Memphis), it was the reason we went. I never got serviced in the back (who am I to judge what consenting adults do), yet it was fun to watch the antics on stage and have a really attractive dancer sit on your lap at the table for a while.

I haven't been to any shake joints since platinum was shut down. My friends tell me they aren't very good and, honestly, the dancers are not very attractive. The really good ones have all moved to other cities.

On this blog there is much talk of authenticity. Well, Memphis was known for having great strip clubs. (Memphis has never lacked in authenticity, we're more than real. It is just some folks didn't like our type of authenticity.)Thanks to some politicians' political grandstanding Memphis doesn't have that anymore. I find it a bit hypocritical that in a city/county with rampant criminal problems, strip clubs have to be shut down. Maybe the cops/deputies could have just stopped by Platinum once a week. It's not like Platinum was a rolling rave party showing up at different warehouses.

As for Bill Gibbons, you are a joke. What were you doing when Ricky Peete, Ed Ford, and Joe Cooper were their running criminal rackets. How about all the corruption on the County Commission and the Memphis City school system? I'm sure he is going to hide behind the excuse that those are under Federal Jurisdiction. Whatever. Gibbons is too busy printing up expensive color booklets twice a year telling folks the low hanging criminal fruit he has been picking in preparation for a run for governor.

Now Gibbons and his cohorts on the County Commission can claim they cleaned up the true criminal plague infecting our community, strip clubs. Hasn't Memphis just become a crime free paradise in the past 6 months and along with a more morally upright community, a regular Zion on the bluffs. That news story about rampant street prostituion by channel 5 a few weeks ago was complete fiction. The only drug and prostitution problems in this city was rooted in Platinum. But hey, I'll give props to this blog, the County Commission, and Gibbons for ignoring fundamental problems affecting this city and keep people distracted by the bright shiny object that is strip clubs.

Mulroy said...

I don't have a problem with the bulk of this post, but I do want to respectfully address the mistaken implication that the County Commission "usurped" the power of the City Council.

Way back when the County Commission first considered the SOB ordinance, the Commission formally went to the City Council on the record and offered to work together on a joint ordinance. We even discussed the possible advantages of having dual overlapping ordinances, with the county ordinance serving as a "backstop" for the City Council's, deterring possible court challenges to the City Council ordinance (since the "bad cop" county ordinance would automatically take effect if the City one were invalidated in court). The City Council didn't really respond definitively; given this silence, the county acted.

This action was appropriate, in my view, given that the state legislature provided COUNTIES (not cities) with the authority to adopt the "model" SOB ordinance set up by state law, which would apply by default inside any city (like Memphis) which did not have and enforce its own SOB ordinance.

The point here is that the county did not "usurp" the City's role. We tried to reach out and work cooperatively with the City, and are still willing to do so--e.g., by setting up a JOINT County-City SOB Board to enforce any new City SOB ordinance. I agree with Smart City that any new city ordinance should have such an SOB Board, and NOT the Beer Board, as the enforcer.

Bottom line: SCM is right to say that SOBs have a right to exist, and that we shouldn't legislate based on moral disapproval. At the same time, I bet SCM agrees that SOBs should exist away from homes, schools, and churches, and we can and should legislate to target "secondary effects" like rising crime and falling property values.

Thus, I can see the wisdom in the City leaving the county ordinance untouched. Alternatively, I can see the wisdom in the City enacting its own ordinance, perhaps without an alcohol ban (but retaining the licensing and registration requirements, and giving enforcement power to the SOB Board, not the Beer Board). But I cannot see the fairness in anyone saying the County Commission ran roughshod over City prerogatives. Quite the contrary, in fact, as the record shows.

Steve Mulroy
County Commissioner

Smart City Consulting said...

Commissioner Mulroy:

Thank you for your perspective and the additional information. We appreciate your taking the time to communicate with your constituents.

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