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City settles longstanding litigation with strip clubs

From the Mayor’s press release:

HoustonSeal

Recognizing Houston is a hub for human trafficking, the City and 16 area topless clubs have entered into a novel settlement agreement aimed at addressing this heinous crime, ending litigation dating back to 1997 when City Council imposed new regulations on sexually-oriented businesses.

“In the 16 years since City Council acted, no original clubs have closed and new clubs choosing to ignore our regulations have grown in number,” said Mayor Parker.  “Establishing a working relationship with these 16 clubs will assist law enforcement in reducing criminal activity, help us combat human trafficking and, hopefully, allow us to focus police resources on the rogue clubs.  This settlement allows us to address the problem head on in a meaningful way with funding and staff.”

The 16 clubs will annually contribute more than one million dollars to a Human Trafficking Abatement Fund.  The funds will be used to create and staff a human trafficking unit within the Vice Division of the Houston Police Department.  In addition to contributing monies, these clubs must institute and adhere to certain restrictions and policies to aid in combatting human trafficking.  For example:

  • all private rooms and areas must be eliminated;
  • a club may not knowingly employ, hire or contract for the services of an entertainer or dancer who is accompanied by another person who speaks for her, holds her identification, collects her pay for “safekeeping” or appears to exercise control, force, or coercion over the person;
  • a club may not knowingly employ, hire or contract for the services of a person for whom a background check reveals a conviction within 60 months for a prostitution or drug offense;
  • any individual convicted of a drug or prostitution offense, public lewdness or indecent exposure at a participating club is prohibited from working at any club that is a party to the agreement;
  • any act of prostitution, public lewdness, indecent exposure or offense involving narcotics observed by or reported to a manager of a club will be reported to the City along with all remedial measures taken to ensure the activity is not repeated; and
  • all clubs will provide annual human trafficking awareness training and disseminate materials regarding human trafficking awareness.

In return, the City has agreed to allow these 16 clubs to continue operating at their same locations in much the same manner as they did prior to the 1997 ordinance.  While topless entertainment and table dances will be allowed again, laws against public lewdness, prostitution, indecent exposure and narcotics offenses will continue to be strictly enforced.  Arrests for these offenses are grounds for terminating a club from participating in this agreement.

This agreement applies only to these 16 grandfathered clubs.  Any other club offering sexually-oriented entertainment must still comply with the 1997 ordinance and all other regulatory provisions.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize there was still litigation pending. My most recent update on this is from 2008, but I see that as of then the city was still “involved in a lawsuit in state district courts with the 11 clubs that appealed to the Supreme Court”, which had to do with “amortization,” or the amount of time the owners should get to recoup their investments before having to close or relocate. So there you have it. The Chron story fills in some more details.

Because they still do not concede to being sexually oriented businesses, the clubs do not have to adhere to the ordinance’s regulation that they must operate at least 1,500 feet from schools, day cares, parks and churches.

“They are not saying it,” Feldman said. “But they are agreeing to do all these things that actually are a greater obligation than they would have under the ordinance if they were a (sexually oriented business).”

Any club that breaks the terms of the agreement will be dropped from the settlement, and the other establishments will have to pick up the contribution to the abatement fund.

Feldman, who began crafting the settlement in the spring, said the concept originated from a lawsuit settlement between the city and prominent strip club Treasures. In 2012, the city and Harris County Attorney’s office sued Treasures’ owner, accusing the establishment of harboring prostitution, drugs, illegal weapons and sexual assaults.

A settlement was reached last December in which the club’s owner agreed to put $100,000 in a nuisance abatement fund to combat human trafficking as well as similar provisions with the current agreement.

“That in turn gave me the idea if we can create such a fund for the purpose of addressing enforcement activities within these clubs, why couldn’t we do something similar to address the broader issue of human trafficking?” said Feldman.

Feldman said the city would be open to speaking with any other clubs that would like to come under a similar agreement.

If the agreement works well for both entities, Feldman said the next step would be grafting similar terms as a permanent provision in the city’s sexually oriented business ordinance.

See here and here for the background on the Treasures lawsuits. I presume all this means that the strip clubs will not be playing in the county elections this year.

According to Melissa Darragh, the Mayor’s social media director, the agreement is supported by HPD, the strip clubs themselves, the Houston Area Women’s Center, YMCA International, and the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition. You’re on your own to figure out which of the clubs are among the 16 that are now approved for you to attend, however. Hair Balls has more.

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5 Comments

  1. Doug Hunter says:

    The city has won every major issue brought to court by all of the clubs and other cities have patterned ordinances using Houston’s model. The red herring of the amortization schedule was all about minute details, clubs that would use one set of figures for investors but try another with the courts; no higher court was going to listen to most of it.

    That said, few people are as adamant about the ordinance as those that initially pushed it, former city councilman Hammering Helen Huey being the biggest of the bunch. She had a young son that dated strippers and it reportedly drove her crazy while a number of influential civic clubs made waves to get it passed for their usual reasons regarding property values.

    Most people in the area rank wasting police time in strip clubs about as high as they place having police en masse writing speeding tickets on the down side of multi-lane overpasses or enforcing deed restrictions against elderly neighbors. I know this flies in the face of the prevailing logic but the police have never aggressively enforced the majority of the ordinance and never planned to, it was feel good legislation that even then-Mayor Lanier joked about while tossing Council a bone by not stopping it outright.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    The Mob has nothing on the city of Houston. The Mob uses the threat of violence to extort “protection money” from businesses, while the CoH uses its legal staff to extort “protection money” from businesses.

    I’m reminded of the “pole tax” a few years ago.

    Oh, we are going to punish these taxpaying businesses and use the money to presumably help abused women. Everyone wants to help abused women, right?

    Hey, these clubs aren’t abusing anyone. They are providing employmen and tax revenue. Maybe not the most savory kind of employment, but employment nonetheless.

    So, the city feels the need to save these poor exploited women from themselves, while at the same time punishing the owners and clientele of these clubs. The Taliban would be proud of our morality enforcers, as would Governor Rick and his merry band of Christian Taliban. Did Mayor Parker become a Republican while I was sick?

    And in the end, what really happened here? Suddenly, that immoral behavior got a pass…..as long as the city gets its $ 1M a year on time. This extortion seem oddly familiar. Didn’t they pretty much do the same thing to The Woodlands? The Woodlands is paying the CoH each year big money NOT to be annexed. The strip clubs are paying the CoH each year NOT to be harassed. Hmmm.

  3. Bill Daniels says:

    @Doug Hunter

    I agree that most people would prefer fewer speed traps and less time waste on vice raids. Personally, I’d prefer they reallocate those resources to solving crimes. Seems like HPD doesn’t even bother fingerprinting a crime scene unless somebody dies or is raped. That’s small comfort to all those whose homes, cars, and businesses have been robbed.

    The only traffic program I ever really supported was that short lived initiative where HPD supposedly had unmarked units looking out for aggressive drivers on the freeway. I actually supported that. Pulling over Joe Sixpack for going 75 in a 60 when everyone else is doing 72 anyway isn’t making ME any safer.

  4. Steve Houston says:

    @Bill Daniels & Doug Hunter

    (in reverse order)
    While some “people” may prefer fewer speed traps, it is proven time and again that enforcing traffic laws reduces the number of deaths on our roadways. This holds true nationally, statewide, and locally in studies done by the academics at Rice, Cougar High, and San Jack to name a few. When enforcement is cut, traffic deaths rise quickly, people figuring out that such officers generally provide a reasonable amount of latitude that keeps those driving 75 from going 95 in many cases. I liked the aggressive driving program myself and it was also accomplished using marked units, tailgaters, lane changing lunatics, and others taming down the crazies before the political pressure halted the program.

    Vice raids are usually complaint driven, the skanks from the clubs doing their customers in the parking lots or nearby alleys driving both neighbors and maintenance crews up a wall (who wants to pick up used condoms from a neighboring club). Far more effort has always been done on the street walkers than the clubs too, the press typically picking up on the clubs with all the usual rhetoric as it suits their agenda. Vice also handles the problems with underage serving of alcohol, lack of permits, and the like but they are so few in number that a compromise like the article talks about serves a purpose.

    Since the original ordinance was passed, and as pointed out, upheld every time, the powers that be have changed their focus. While I don’t see the big strip clubs as havens for sex trafficking, at least not for underage immigrants as seems to be the selling point these days, many of those smaller cantinas and massage parlors are frequent fliers. Since the numbers of police have not increased as Houston has grown in the past 20 years, they have been focusing more on the problem children, the bigger clubs inspected very infrequently, enough violations found each time to warrant continued monitoring on an infrequent basis.

    Like it or not, violations of the ordinance, like traffic offenses, are “crimes” as you put it. If you want a free for all society, by all means retract all the laws you don’t personally approve of via the legislative process. I concur there are too many laws on the books in need of revision, reduction, or stronger/lesser enforcement as the case may be. If everyone complied with traffic laws, all the local agencies would cut traffic enforcement to place personnel elsewhere or reduce the size of their force as political forces demand. The same holding true for vice crimes. If you want better crime solving rates, be prepared to pony up much more in manpower and equipment, comparable cities elsewhere providing similar clearance rates with much bigger staffing. And if you think spending 20 or 30+ hours investigating a beer run to conclusion is a valid use of police resources, I suspect you will be alone in that regard, the idea that fingerprinting everything without adequate additional follow up will change anything a curious notion.

    But keep in mind that the SOB ordinance was passed before Parker ran for office. Whatever issues one might have of her, she was never as aggressive as the Huey/Wong/Saenz coalition that spurred the thing. The deal is that the clubs enforce the rules better, saving the city a lot of money, and add new rules that satisfy the biggest concerns. The point everyone is focusing on, the money, goes to a fund where it may well do more good than some of the stupider spending the city engages in. Remember that this is a SETTLEMENT for litigation lasting the last 16 years that has cost the city huge amounts of money more than this will provide anytime soon. That it will allow the city to stop spending more to keep winning in court is the icing on the cake. As much as the city spent, how much more do you think the 16 clubs collectively spent (hint: a heck of a lot more only to delay what they have admitted would only delay the inevitable after the first several losses).