Sexually Disoriented

Politics -- not logic -- drove Council to enact the new jury-rigged SOB ordinance

"That just gives testament and proof to the fact that this was not targeted to any specific business," Boney says.

But it also raises an interesting issue: The new ordinance, like the old, has no room for variance based on neighborhood concerns. At a January 6 public hearing, Fontinopoulos told the committee his club has co-existed peaceably with his neighbors for years.

"What do I do?" he wanted to know.
Huey suggested he present his concerns to the hearing officer who will decide how long each business gets to stay in place to recoup its initial investment. But neighborhood peace is not on the list of deciding factors -- either the Ritz is in compliance with the land use rule or it's not.

Though they may be an "inconvenience" to the city, Houston's 40 or so topless clubs have also been something of a cash cow. The Ritz, a midsize club, has 65 employees, 200 dancers, and pays $24,000 a month in sales and liquor taxes. Its 1996 property taxes, Fontinopoulos says, totaled $54,000. But Boney says the committee did not study the economic impact of the ordinance, adding, "We don't want Houston to be known as a mecca for topless clubs."

Clearly, the committee didn't think it was too late to change the city's long-standing reputation. To do so, it was willing to go after more than just the clubs themselves. The new ordinance directly affects the 4,000 (by one club owner's estimate) "independent contractors" who work at the clubs: the dancers. It not only requires that dancers be licensed, but they must also conspicuously display those licenses on their person -- a measure no other city has tried (Harris County's similar display requirement is not yet in effect).

While licensing dancers doesn't do much to protect neighborhoods, it's one of several provisions HPD's vice squad wanted included. Licensing, says Captain R.B. Chandler, would enable officers to clearly identify the dancers they wish to arrest without interrupting a club's business. Rokki Ford Roberts, an attorney who has represented hundreds of dancers in court, says there are plenty of other ways a vice officer can avoid wrongful arrests: They can use the pictures many clubs keep on file, or they can simply ask club managers to bring a dancer outside to be identified by an undercover officer inside a van.

The licensing requirement promises to drive some dancers out of the business. For one thing, it prevents people convicted of sex-related crimes, including public lewdness, from working in clubs. When dancers are charged with public lewdness, they are often offered deferred adjudication because the crime is so hard to prove in court. HPD counts deferred adjudication as a conviction. Furthermore, the ordinance leaves it up to the vice squad and the city Legal Department to decide exactly what information will appear on the license. After dancers protested at the January 6 hearing that revealing their names and addresses would put them at risk, Huey assured the committee that only a stage name and number would be on the license (but didn't attempt to amend the ordinance accordingly).

Even so, under Texas state law all government license application information is available to the public. And how would nude dancers wear their licenses? At the last committee meeting, Chandler had no answer for that one.

Cami Berginides says she'll quit dancing rather than put herself in harm's way by being licensed.

"Most of the guys are normal, but you get some freaks in there and they think they have some kind of relation with you," she says. The 29-year-old Berginides is not only a photography student at Houston Community College -- she's a licensed handgun carrier who doesn't go to work without a weapon because customers have sometimes tried to follow her home. She doesn't doubt that a particularly unbalanced patron would take the trouble to obtain her name and address.

Chandler disagrees: "I don't think you're talking about a significant danger," though he added that the department is looking for ways to keep the information off the books.

Dr. Bruce Prescott, the pastor of Easthaven Baptist Church, insists he's no prude. As he shakes hands with his mostly elderly congregates one Sunday morning, he proudly notes that he spoke out against Baylor University when administrators forbade nude models in art classes, and that he's a member of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

But Prescott does not look kindly on topless clubs in his neighborhood. He says he has even traveled to Austin to tell the TABC about alleged drug deals and prostitution in the Ritz parking lot. As a former police officer, he thinks he ought to know a crime when he sees one, and he doesn't want his kids to get an eyeful of vice from the Whataburger next door. But club owners complain that the city, in particular the police department, has failed to prove that SOBs lead to increased crime and depressed property values.

Though the vice squad provided the SOB committee with detailed crime stat reports, it didn't include data from other businesses for comparison. One report by vice lists the Colorado Bar & Grill, a southwest Houston topless bar, as being the site of eight arrests and 32 calls for police service in a 22-month period (the club with the most arrests had 50). Chandler says the figures given to Council reflect only calls for service related to sex crimes.

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