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VOL. 123 | NO. 46 | Thursday, March 6, 2008

Strip Club Ordinance Raises Ire

By Bill Dries

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INCREDULITY: "We're being sued and it's not even our ordinance," said Memphis City Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware Tuesday in a debate about a city strip club ordinance to replace the one approved by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which now covers the city of Memphis. -- Photo By Bill Dries

It was the last major issue for the Memphis City Council that left office at the end of 2007.

Its members passed a city ordinance on the first of three readings that would regulate strip clubs and other sexually oriented businesses. And then the council delayed the measure until the newly elected council, with nine new members, took office in January.

The debate over how to regulate the strip clubs resumed this week.

The ordinance that would permit strip clubs to serve beer won approval Tuesday on the long-delayed second of three readings.

But the approval is a prelude to what is expected to be a lively debate with amendments later this month on third and final reading.

A tease of its own

If approved by the council then, the ordinance would replace the one approved by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners last year, which applies to Memphis in the absence of a city ordinance. It bars strip clubs from serving or permitting any alcohol on the premises.

Sales of beer and other alcoholic beverages are a big part of the strip club business. Seven strip club owners have sued Shelby County government as well as the city of Memphis over the constitutionality of the ordinance.

The ordinance took effect in January. But a 120-day grace period to set up the permitting system for dancers and other club employees, as well as criminal background checks, is in effect until the end of April.

City Attorney Elbert Jefferson worked with those same strip club owners and others in crafting the Herenton administration's proposal last year. Jefferson told council members Tuesday that the proposal could get the city out of the federal lawsuit.

"There may be an opportunity by which we can sit down at the table with the plaintiffs and create an ordinance on this side that would result in the suit against the city of Memphis being dismissed," he told the council. "It's not our ordinance. ... I have to determine if there's a strategy to get us out of that lawsuit."

Council chairman Scott McCormick responded with some questions about the responsibilities of the city attorney.

"You can't guarantee that if we adopt your proposal that we would be removed," McCormick asked.

"I believe that the direction we were going in had the support of the clubs," Jefferson replied in a response McCormick termed "a lawyer answer."

"Being challenged is not a bad thing," McCormick said later. "You might win. At some point, I think we owe a responsibility to put things out there that might be challenged because we might be right."

Reach out and scold someone

Jefferson said he was not afraid of a court fight if it is in the best interest of the council.

Some council members seemed ready to propose amendments in two weeks that would require dancers to be at least 21 years old instead of the current age limit, which starts at 18. Other possible amendments discussed this week could require dancers to wear pasties, a requirement of the county ordinance that also bans bottomless dancing as well. The proposed city ordinance permits topless but not bottomless dancing.

"Basically, if you look at pasties versus what you see on television, you see more on television," Jefferson said when questioned about the difference by council member Wanda Halbert.

Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware railed against the idea of an ordinance affecting the city, where all of the strip clubs are, without the approval of the council.

"I personally resent the fact that we were not included on the front end," she said. "We're being sued and it's not even our ordinance. ... We were arrogantly ignored."

But Ware also took Jefferson to task for the television analogy.

"You can't reach through a television screen and touch anything," Ware said to Jefferson. "You know better. I don't care how naked (TV characters) are, you can't touch them (like you can a live dancer). ... So, that's silly."

Council member Shea Flinn continued to push the idea of a red light district or battle zone for strip clubs. It's an idea Jefferson's office has its doubts about based on a legal opinion it issued last year.

I think we can find an appropriate area of the city to concentrate it ... and then have sufficient financial penalties going with the licensing to operate in this area that would require self-enforcement by the clubs," Flinn said.

Passing any substantial amendments on third reading would require another final reading in April.

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