UPDATE on May 25, 4:45 p.m.: Mayor Trantalis met today with the city manager and city staff to discuss the recent decision they made to not renew the extended hours licenses of several bars that serve a gay clientele. Based on the meeting, the city will proceed with renewing these licenses. This will allow the bars to continue to remain open and serve alcohol after midnight. Staff’s initial intention was to try to address concerns about police calls and code violations by holding up the annual licenses. This was not the appropriate way to raise these matters with the establishments. The Police Department and the Code Enforcement Division will now work with the bar owners directly without targeting their licensing. Mayor Trantalis has consistently maintained that City Hall must be run in a business-friendly fashion. He also has long touted an appreciation for the city’s growing diversity. LGBT businesses and LGBT tourism are important components to our community, and Mayor Trantalis strives to ensure they are protected and nurtured. – Scott Wyman, Assistant to the Mayor
Once the center of nightlife in South Florida with well over a dozen gay bars, Fort Lauderdale now is the home to only five: Le Boy, Boardwalk, Mona’s, Slammers and the Ramrod.
If the city’s new Nighttime Advisory Task Force gets its way, they all will be closing their doors two hours earlier every weekend, at midnight instead of 2 a.m.
The city’s task force, headed up for the last four months by a former assistant city manager of Key West, Sarah Spurlock, has written letters to each of the clubs refusing to renew their "extended hours license."
The bar owners are crying "foul," and Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis will be meeting with city staffers this Friday to review allegations by code enforcement representatives as to why the licenses have been denied to all the gay bars in town.
“The provisions of the law,” Spurlock said, “give the city the rights to deny renewals based either on code violations or ‘excessive’ police calls to the licensed premises.” She is alleging some of those conditions are at issue with at least some of the establishments.
But as Steve Whitney, one of the owners of the Ramrod points out, “the ordinance does not even define what constitutes excessive. We got no notice or warning or request to comply, just a letter to close our doors at midnight. Not exactly the way to work with a business with someone who has partnered to promote your community for a quarter century."
Nevertheless, Spurlock says she makes her recommendations based on whatever the police chief tells her.
Whitney and his partner Zak Enterline have retained Attorney Russell Cormican to represent them, alleging the city’s determination is inequitable and unfair. Cormican is the law partner of SFGN Publisher Norm Kent.
Cormican stated flatly “there is nothing anywhere in the city ordinance that gives the chief of police that right."
The oldest running bar in the city, open 23 continuous years, Whitney added “we have been good corporate neighbors, policing our bar in a rough neighborhood with added security and more staff to provide a safe environment for our customers.” He noted “if we call police, it’s to prevent problems, not cause them.”
Whitney found a supporter in Terrill Nolen, the president of the Middle River Homeowners Association. He sent a letter to city officials saying “the Ramrod is an important dynamic to the area which continues to contribute to bringing up the socioeconomic profile of its residents - they move here because they like Ramrod and feel safer with the presence of all their many security personnel that help to curb potential crime. For many of the 30-40% of gay households in our neighborhood, the Ramrod is in effect our community clubhouse."
Meanwhile, while some owners are addressing the purported code violations and remaining open while they attempt to work with the city and fix them, all are upset because they believe that the city is using drastic measures to exact enforcement.
Stated Cormican, “you don’t impose a death penalty for a traffic ticket. The city has many options and alternatives short of cutting off a bar’s revenue streams because it did not get the correct permit for an awning.”
One bar owner, Jerry at Mona’s, argued the violations are not even in his club but in an insurance agency attached to his bar that he subleases out to another tenant.
“The city,” he said, “should be seeking to partner with us so we all prosper, not that we lose our licenses.”
Even Tim Smith, a long time former city commissioner, who just lost a bid to retake his seat, wrote a letter to city manager Lee Feldman urging the city to rescind its stance, arguing the Ramrod “has been an asset to the neighborhood and has gone out of its way to help reduce criminal activity” in the area.
“For the city it may just be two hours, but for my clients, it’s their survival,” Cormican said. “Holding their extended hours license hostage is not a fair solution.”
Pending the outcome of the meeting, all the bars are remaining open until 2 a.m., despite the fact that their licenses have not been renewed.
Sean David, Le Boy’s owner, expressed optimism with the proactive meeting Trantalis has planned with staff on Friday: “Maybe I have an awning that does not have a proper permit, but you don’t take away my livelihood because of it. If there is a pothole in the McDonald’s parking lot, you can cite them, but you don’t take away their right to sell hamburgers.”