Last week the Brookhaven City Council voted 3-1 to negotiate with the Pink Pony, the strip club the city has been trying to run out of town for two years.
During the meeting, Councilwoman Rebecca Chase Williams, the 1, chastised her council brethren for considering what she said amounts to a bribe for looking the other way while The Pony keeps dancing.
“I fear the political pressure will get to my colleagues on the council,” she said, reading a statement. “Earlier this year, the Pink Pony offered the city $200,000 a year to not enforce the law against them and the club continues to pressure the elected officials.
“I am calling on my colleagues to not succumb to political pressure from a strip club. I consider any kind of payment outside of regular licensing fees to be a bribe.”
More than a decade ago, the Pink Pony cut a deal with DeKalb County to pay a $100,000 “special” licensing fee each year that allows the club to remain open in defiance of a law passed by the county that said you can’t buy a Bud Lite while watching a lady dance in her birthday suit. The law allows the ladies (clubs call them “the girls,” but I’ll be no cad here) to dance naked if alcohol is not served there. Courts have ruled that nude dancing is free speech. I don’t know whether James Madison was thinking about that when he wrote the Bill of Rights, but Ben Franklin would have been all in.
The problem for clubs is that if no alcohol is sold, the business model goes kaput. Guys just don’t buy lap dances if they’re sipping lattes.
An opening for more Pink Ponies?
One of the first things Brookhaven did after incorporating was to pass a law tougher than DeKalb’s. City leaders say they weren’t singling out The Pony: they were worried that allowing the club to stay open would create a legal loophole big enough for some smart lawyer to drive a truck full of naked ladies to Buford Highway.
City leaders say the Fourteenth Amendment’s “Equal Protection Clause” (legalese for “You let them do it, so why can’t we?”) could be used against them by clubs looking to join the Pony in Brookhaven. Ridiculous, says The Pony’s lawyer. He said no new strip clubs have opened in DeKalb since the county tightened its law two decades ago.
Mayor J. Max Davis said Williams calling the looming deal a bribe was “irresponsible.”
“Maybe her reason was to sensationalize the issue,” he told me last week.
Last year, however, the mayor said much the same thing. Last October, Davis faced a roomful of citizens wondering why the city was spending time, energy and money ($40,000 then, at least $200,000 now) to wage what some called a morals campaign. Finally, Davis seemed weary of being pummeled by residents questioning his motives and judgment.
“How many of you are comfortable taking what amounts to be sort of a payoff to not enforce your ordinance?” Davis asked, referring to the existing fee the club pays DeKalb.
A roomful of comfortable hands shot into the air.
Later, he asked, “In your neighborhood, would you prefer if an adult business opens near you?”
Naturally, fewer hands shot up.
‘Paid to look the other way’
Davis said there is a difference between what he and Williams said. He said a new agreement with The Pony would have an end-on date, with no chance of renewal. “If you allow them to (have a chance at renewal) like DeKalb did, then it is like getting paid to look the other way.”
Davis said a deal would allow the club “transition time” to come into compliance with the law and pay the city for extra policing. He said the time limit on a deal would fall in the “single digit” years range. He would not say how much the city would receive.
This month, the state Supreme Court dismissed the club’s lawsuit against the city. Williams was perplexed about why the now-looming deal suddenly appeared. We won! she reasoned. Why negotiate now?
But the Supreme Court ruling is merely a speed bump in the court’s parking lot for Alan Begner, the club’s attorney and the man city officials worry might one day drive those buses full of naked ladies to other Buford Highway clubs. Per usual, Begner remains confident. “We have no inclination of stopping what we’re doing,” he said.
Maybe the city has grown weary of spending hundreds of thousands to fight an intractable foe. Or maybe the council is listening to citizens who have long told them to move on.
‘They’ve made a big mistake’
Kathy Forbes, a resident and local businesswoman who voted for cityhood, called for last year’s community meeting with the mayor on the strip club issue.
Forbes said she was surprised to see that one of the first issues the new city tackled was to pass a “sexually oriented business” ordinance, a matter never mentioned before Brookhaven became a city. Several neighborhood associations pooled together last year to hire pollsters to see what city residents thought. Almost 75 percent polled wanted to settle with the club. Many didn’t even realize The Pony was in Brookhaven.
Forbes figures city officials want to a cut a deal “because they realize they’ve made a big mistake and lost the good will of the people. Worst of all, they eroded trust in the city. They promised transparency.”
But one thing is clear, waging and winning a legal battle has provided superior weaponry for the city in negotiations.
Before this, Brookhaven pointed a .32-caliber revolver at The Pony’s head. Now it holds a .44 Magnum.
Williams chuckled at the analogy. “It was never our intention,” she said. “But that is what happened.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.