Greensboro council unsure of nightclub security ordinance

by Eric Ginsburg

Asecurity ordinance that would impact nightclubs and strip clubs hit an unexpected snare last week — its main proponent on city council, Zack Matheny.

The District 3 Greensboro councilman has championed an entertainment security ordinance alongside police Chief Ken Miller, but expressed his doubts that the draft ordinance would be effective for shutting down venues with patterns of violence.

Opponents of the ordinance, particularly lawyers like Amiel Rossabi who represent club owners, have argued that the existing nuisance-abatement laws, known as Chapter 19, are sufficient to close down problem clubs, and Matheny said he was “struggling” with the fact that the ordinance  wouldn’t be a quicker tool and said he needed to know if he was “just popping in legislation because it’s perceived as a good or popular remedy.

“I’m concerned that this might not be the answer to what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Matheny, the chair of a task force of three council members to look at the issue. “I think we’re farther away [from a solution] than I realized.

With follow-up questions from District 2 Councilman Jim Kee and at-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter, Matheny repeatedly questioned Police Attorney Jim Clark — who spearheaded the third draft of the ordinance — and Assistant Chief Dwight Crotts about how effectively the ordinance could deal with owners who refused to cooperate. The ordinance would require venues to follow a security manual and violations would go before the quasi-judicial board of adjustments, but if club owners repeatedly appealed the decision, it would take as long or longer than the existing law.

“I don’t deny that it’s not as fast as Chapter 19,” Clark said, clarifying that while the process may be slower under the ordinance, it would allow the city to start taking action sooner because the pattern of violence would just have to be “episodic” instead of “continuous.”

“The design for the ordinance is to be preventative on the front end,” Crotts said. “This does give them an opportunity to take responsibility and correct the problems themselves.”

The ordinance would enact security rules that all sexually oriented businesses open after 9 p.m. would have to follow, as well as entertainment venues serving alcohol with a capacity of 150 or more and under-21 clubs without alcohol and the same capacity. Much of the ordinance is focused on preventing violence by increasing club security, both through training and various requirements, but owners say it would be cost prohibitive and argue the ordinance is a blunt tool, punishing clubs that aren’t the problem in an attempt to target a few locations.

“We understand that there will be an increase in cost,” Clark said, “[But] public safety is also something that is good for business.”

Clark emphasized that the goal of the ordinance was not to close down venues, but to raise the security and safety levels at clubs throughout the city. He spent the majority of the meeting reading through questions posed by public opponents at the last subcommittee meeting on the ordinance and providing answers from the police department. Many of the questions focused on ways that opponents felt the ordinance was unnecessary or unfairly targeting venues that did not have histories of violence occurring on the premises and that cooperated with the police.

Matheny said he has more questions now than he has throughout the process, adding that he wants to make sure the council isn’t reactive to the perceived club violence problem in a way that is harmful. It was obvious that more dialogue on the issue was necessary, Kee said, and Abuzuaiter said the issue was “really, really complicated” and that she still has numerous questions.

Without the support of the council subcommittee and with strong opposi tion from several club owners and their supporters, the ordinance will likely fail. Matheny has taken the issue on as one of several safety-related issues in his last two terms, and has been its biggest proponent on council.

There was confusion as to how the ordinance would alter or enhance the existing land development ordinance, or LDO, though after repeated questions from council and attempted explanations from the police department, Clark said there were not existing standards for enforcement in the LDO, though there was already a mechanism for enforcement. Clark said the proposed ordinance would establish a baseline for the security rules clubs had to follow to avoid enforcement action. Matheny and other council members appeared exasperated, and he urged Clark to skip through some of the department’s responses to questions so council could hear from the audience.

At-large Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan and newly appointed District 5 Councilman Tony Wilkins sat in on the meeting, and the audience also contained a few people working with private security firms, Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Ed Wolverton and ordinance opponents, including five who spoke towards the end of the meeting.

Katei Cranford, who has announced that she will run against Matheny in the fall, said the ordinance would place an “undue and potentially disastrous burden” on club owners who would have to pay more for the changes, penalizing good club owners when Chapter 19 has worked in the past. That’s been Rossabi’s contention all along, which he reiterated at the meeting. Rossabi added that, practically speaking, clubs would be forced to hire Lankford Security in order to meet the training requirements in the manual.

Eric Robert, who plans to open a venue that would fall under the proposed ordinance and would host events like bar mitzvahs, criticized the process as lacking transparency and said Clark was deceiving council and the public about the ordinance.

Rossabi said that while he disagrees with Clark’s stance, the police attorney hasn’t been deceptive. Matheny said they have worked to be transparent and, if anything, the first year or two of the process where previous drafts were brought forward lacked transparency. He suggested that the noise ordinance, which was met by stronger opposition but was also perceived as an attack on clubs, should have been this open.

Robert still had other concerns. “You’re exempting my competition but you are essentially burdening me,” Robert said, arguing that hotels and other venues that host similar functions would be exempt and he would be punished even though he hasn’t contributed to the problem.

Other speakers questioned whether council members had faith in the preventative abilities of the ordinance, and while the subcommittee didn’t directly respond, council members left the impression that they were wary of moving forward with its current iteration. The task force will take up the issue again in January.