GREENSBORO FINE-TUNES CLUB SECURITY ORDINANCE
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A month after passing, and then suspending, a nightclub security ordinance, the Greensboro City Council is in the process of re-examining the issue following pushback from club owners over the cost of implementation.
The council is holding two meetings in hopes of settling the issue and bringing forward an ordinance that meets legitimate public safety concerns without seeming to restrict nightlife in a city that pride’s itself on attracting and retaining younger residents.
The issue is a prominent example of the competing interests in Greensboro, which often pits wealthy business interests and property owners against the vibrant youth culture the city spends so much time cultivating. The two sides clashed in recent years over a restrictive noise ordinance pushed by wealthy condominium residents newly moved into the downtown area who wanted to turn down the party scene at popular nightclubs nearby.
The ordinance passed, and the divide between night clubs and wealthy downtown residents seemed to subside in the absence of overly strict enforcement until a spate of random violence in November 2014 thrust the issue back to the front.
The council passed a hastily crafted ordinance at its Dec. 2 meeting. City Attorney Tom Carruthers said at the time that the ordinance was not ideal, but was put forward to meet the council’s desire for swift action following a Nov. 8 shooting on South Elm Street that killed a man. A reported stabbing at a downtown club the next night further exacerbated the public outcry.
But pushback from club owners at the council’s next meeting resulted in a suspension of the ordinance, followed by a special meeting held Jan. 7 in council chambers.
Interim Police Chief Anita Holder presented calls for service history to various nightclubs, bars and restaurants, but urged council to read between the lines.
The proposed ordinance pairs crowd size with requirements for armed and unarmed security. Holder said council shouldn’t exclusively look at occupancy and calls for service and draw conclusions. Larger clubs often hire off-duty Greensboro police officers, Holder said, resulting in more calls for police service.
“There may be a higher level of calls for service there initiated at the officer’s discretion,” Holder said. “To compare those simply by numbers is very difficult to do.”
The city attorney’s office provided two memos listing the calls for service, one of which included the club’s last violent incident. The proposed ordinance requires increased security for any club open for less than three years or with a history of violent episodes. Twenty eight clubs qualify. Of those, 14 have had a violent incident in the past three years. An estimated eight clubs listed could eventually be exempted from the ordinance because they have been open more than three years without reported violence. Four of the listed clubs have been open less than three years.
DEFINITION OF “ARMED SECURITY”
Council member Tony Wilkins sought early on to clarify the definition of “armed” contained within the ordinance. Several club owners had complained that the city’s new policy would “put guns in their club.”
“I looked up the definition of that. That doesn’t mean guns,” Wilkins said. “You can be armed with a Taser, and so I don’t want the public to hear those comments and think we’re putting guns in clubs.”
Holder agreed, and said that the Greensboro Police Department does not allow its officers to work inside the club. By policy, they can only work on the outside of the club and the parking lot, Holder said.
Council member Zack Matheny, who chaired the special meeting of the council at Mayor Nancy Vaughan’s request due to his work over the years on the night club security issue, said it was frustrating to hear people say the council pushed for guns in nightclubs.
“That simply isn’t true. It’s not written anywhere,” Matheny said. “I think clarifying that is very important.”
Armed security guards are regulated by the state and require a higher level of training, which was the point of the city including that definition in the ordinance. But the nature and positioning of armed security is at the discretion of the club management, City Attorney Carruthers said.
The ordinance requires nightclubs with occupancy greater than 100 to have at least two armed security guards present with requirements for additional unarmed security guards based on higher attendance.
Wilkins asked what options were considered to determine the number of guards needed, citing concerns that the city would put an undue burden on the business.
“In all fairness, under this financial obligation, was anything else explored about the number of guards,” Wilkins asked.
Carruthers said that the requirement was adopted from the GPD security manual written in 2012. Some police officials were concerned that the larger crowds might actually require higher numbers of security guards, he said. The requirements are based on actual attendance, not occupancy levels.
“They will then lay off guards for the evening if the crowd that they anticipate doesn’t materialize,” Carruthers said. “We were trying to provide them some flexibility in their staffing.”
Which is a major issue for club owners, who estimate that four security guards per event could cost as much as $83,000 a year at the larger, more popular clubs.
Matheny sought to steer the discussion clear of minutiae such as the things that could impact attendance, such as weather, and necessary staffing levels.
“I am not in the night club business so I probably don’t know how to run a night club,” he said. “So let them go run the night club and as long as you don’t have a problem, we’ll never have a problem.”
VIEW FROM THE CLUBS
Only two nightclub owners or managers attended the meeting, with both leveling criticism at the city for not publicizing the discussion.
Drew Wofford, one of the owners of Chemistry on Spring Garden Street, said consideration should be given for clubs with no history of violence. City leaders, including Mayor Vaughan, have expressed sympathy for new clubs but point out that without an initial period of regulation, problem clubs could just close and reopen under a new name to circumvent the spirit of the regulations.
Wofford agreed that some regulation is needed.
“Violence in our city is unacceptable. I’m tired of going to Raleigh to a gay bar and having jokes from my friends saying ‘We’re not going to Greensboro because we’ll get shot there.’ That’s not true. We’ve never had these issues at Chemistry,” Wofford said. “We’ve never had any violent issues that have resulted in injury to any of our patrons.”
Matheny asked him what he thought about cutting the period of regulation from three years to 18 months, something the council will likely consider at its next meeting on the issue.
“I think in 18 months you’re going to know who the bad eggs are and who’s not,” Matheny said.
Wofford said he preferred the opt-in method.
“Finding clubs that have issues and identifying the problem clubs, those are the clubs that really need to have security, not the gay bar with drag queens that throw around pixie dust at each other,” Wofford said.
Grady Green, who worked at Greene Street Club previously and now Limelight, said he preferred a tiered system, starting with off-duty officers outside the club and moving to the stricter training requirements if problems persist. Any ordinance should be punishment based, not reward based, he said.
“Currently I’m at Limelight, and we’re being affected by something that happened when the club was Syn and Sky, who was another owner, another management and a whole other staff,” Green said. He pointed out that he was involved in efforts to open another club on Elm Street, which would face similar problems from previous owners.
“We basically bought the space, but now we’re going to be held accountable for what happened there beforehand, based on the way it’s written now,” he said.
Green also questioned the methods used to qualify a club for having an act of violence. The city’s list showed an incident at Greene Street Club in March 2013 listed as “assault with broken nose.”
“That happened in a mosh pit between two friends,” Green said. “That’s just the nature of the concert. These people choose to go in there and bang around with each other. There wasn’t any violence or charges pressed. We just called the ambulance because he was bleeding from his nose.”
Green noted there were a handful of recent shooting incidents at bars and restaurants not subject to the ordinance.
CHANGES ON THE HORIZON
The council meets again today for its second discussion on the ordinance. At the end of the Jan. 7 meeting, Matheny hinted at what he’d like to see on the table, including shortening the regulation period to 18 months, something that was supported by Mayor Vaughan and council members Yvonne Johnson and Jamal Fox.
Matheny said the regulations should be based on arrests, not calls for service, pointing out that anyone can make an accusation or target a club for retribution.
“That’s a call, but it has no substance to it whatsoever. And we’ve seen a little bit of that,” Matheny said.
Matheny and Vaughan discussed the possibility of requiring clubs to close at midnight, something they picked up from studying Greenville, South Carolina. Under that city’s zoning ordinance, clubs are required to close at midnight and request a special use permit in order to stay open later.
“It’s been hugely successful in Greenville and did not hurt the nightlife at all,” Matheny said. “It gives an understanding of who’s running the night club, how it’s being managed and what kind of business they’re running. Then it’s OK if they can stay open until 2 a.m.”
Vaughan said she liked the concept since it took into consideration adjoining property owners and noise and light levels.
“It’s more than just coming and getting permission from city council, it’s actually involving the neighborhood,” Vaughan said. “It works in Greenville, It would be something very different for us but it’s something that I would certainly support.” !