At the urging of residents, Brookhaven City Council will consider seeking additional legal advice regarding its controversial sexually-oriented business ordinance.
Brookhaven residents, dissatisfied with the city’s legal battle with the Pink Pony strip club, aired their grievances during an Oct. 16 roundtable discussion with Mayor J. Max Davis and Councilman Joe Gebbia.
The informal gathering was organized by a group of neighborhood leaders who commissioned a telephone poll about the lawsuit. The results showed 75 percent of those polled wanted the city to settle its lawsuit with the Pink Pony, and 62 percent felt the city’s actions did not represent the will of the people.
Residents lobbed their questions and criticisms at the city officials, who for months have been advised not to talk about the lawsuit.
“This is not so much about the Pink Pony, but the will of the people,” said Kerry Witt, president of the Pine Hills Homeowners Association and an organizer of the poll. “We’re just trying to convey to the city that the will of the people is just as important as what they think is right for the city.”
Earlier this year, the Pink Pony strip club sued the city of Brookhaven over its sexually-oriented business ordinance, which bans nude dancing and alcohol. City officials say DeKalb’s law is unconstitutional, and a stronger ordinance is necessary to protect the city. But the owners of the club say the law would put them out of business.
Currently, the owners of the Pink Pony pay DeKalb County a $100,000 annual licensing fee as part of a settlement from a previous lawsuit.
Davis asked the group for a show of hands to see who would feel comfortable with the city collecting that fee from the Pink Pony in exchange for ignoring the law. All hands shot up, and some even suggested the city should ask for more.
“We in the city need these tax dollars. I want to see 15 more squad cars,” said Ashford Park resident Ronnie Mayer. “Use that tax money for good.”
Many of the residents questioned the city’s employment of Scott Bergthold, the Tennessee attorney who was hired to help draft the sexually-oriented business ordinance. Bergthold has written and defended laws that regulate adult businesses around the country. One woman asked the city officials to seek the advice of other attorneys.
Residents also disputed the city’s claims of “secondary effects” caused by sexually-oriented businesses. A Pine Hills resident who said he lives “a stone’s throw” from the Pink Pony said he has never had any problems associated with the club.
Kathy Forbes, a Brookhaven Fields resident who organized the event, listed a number of new businesses near the club to dispute claims that the Pink Pony will discourage economic development.
“We just don’t buy it. They’ve been good neighbors, and there’s a lot of business coming in,” Forbes said.
Davis said members of City Council felt it was their duty to shore up the regulations for adult businesses. He said clubs that serve alcohol and allow nude dancing can bring down property values and have shown to be associated with other crimes.
“It’s not because we’re moralists,” Davis said. “It’s not because we’re on a crusade to shut down strip clubs.”
At the City Council’s Oct. 22 meeting, Davis told the other council members that following the suggestions from residents at the roundtable discussion, he’d like to seek the advice of other attorneys regarding the city’s law. He said outside opinions would help to affirm the city’s position or bring up things they may not have considered.
“Frankly, there were a couple things I didn’t have answers for that I would like answers to,” Davis said of the roundtable discussion. He said seeking outside legal advice is “not to undermine our ordinance …. It’s just more informing our decision.”
Councilwoman Rebecca Chase Williams quickly rejected the suggestion.
“I have a bit of an objection to this. I personally think we reached out early on and had suggestions at a work session,” Williams said. “Are we going to keep looking for opinions until we find one they agree with?”
Councilman Bates Mattison, who watched a video of the roundtable discussion, said he’d like to entertain other ideas to help potentially lower the city’s legal costs.
“The issue I heard resoundingly is that [residents] are concerned about the cost,” Mattison said.
Councilman Jim Eyre also questioned the need to seek other advice. He said he doesn’t know what, short of rescinding the ordinance, would make the Pink Pony owners drop the lawsuit.
“We’re sort of on a train that has left the station,” Eyre said. “While I understand and appreciate what you’re saying, I don’t know that we have the option to mitigate those costs because we’re not driving those costs.”
Gebbia said talking about the sexually- oriented business ordinance with residents was very valuable because council members have been “muzzled” on the topic.
“One of the most valuable outcomes was people were generally satisfied to have us there,” Gebbia said. “We all ran on the basis of transparency and that was transparency.”