OpEd: How the Lauderdale Bars Remained Open

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LeBoy during Neighborhood Appreciation Day. Photo via Facebook.

Last Friday night, while enjoying dinner at The Grille, Paul Hugo’s spectacular new restaurant in Wilton Manors, a gentleman approached me and thanked me for my law firm’s victory in persuading the city of Fort Lauderdale to rescind its “homophobic” decision to close gay bars earlier.

No, that’s not what happened at all. Let me correct that here and now.

The city of Fort Lauderdale, its city manager Lee Feldman, and his assistant Sarah Spurlock, who supervises the Nighttime Economy Task Force, were at no time targeting the LGBT community. The issue here was code violations, not gender considerations. If our reporting intimated otherwise, I should be castigated, not congratulated.

Here is what actually happened.

Last year, the city manager inaugurated a task force to more vigorously manage the costs of patrolling the city’s thriving nightclub life. Too many places were just having too many problems, draining police resources and generating excessive administrative costs. They also found that numerous hospitality establishments in town were skating on many code requirements.

Exploring measures to induce compliance with city regulations, officials found they had at their disposal a little-used ordinance with draconian sanctions. Fort Lauderdale’s regulatory scheme for alcoholic beverage establishments only licenses them to serve liquor until midnight. In order to serve liquor after 12, all bars are required to acquire an ‘Extended Hours License,’ which discretionarily permits them to serve until 2 a.m.

This license is renewable every year at no charge to the clubs, but it provides that establishments who have ‘excessive’ police calls to their venues, or multiple outstanding code violations, which have gone unrepaired, may be denied that license.

Regrettably, and unfortunately, city staffers decided to exact compliance by using this tool as a first line of attack against both straight and gay clubs, over two dozen straight ones in fact. The reason it drew the attention of the editors here at SFGN was because nearly all of the LGBT clubs were so impacted, even though the majority of them had inconsequential or specious violations of law.

As an example, John Pradon, the owner at 321 Slammers, and a long term client of my law firm, was threatened with a violation because of "improper paving” of his parking lot. Jerry Schultz, the owner of Mona’s, was legitimately mystified how a permit violation by his sublessee, an insurance company with an adjoining location, could cause his nightclub the right to lose an after hours liquor license. He was right, of course, and so were multiple bar owners with more substantial code violations.

You don’t use a shotgun on a flea.

Sean David, the owner of Le Boy, put the issue in its proper perspective. He said “I may have been negligent in putting up my outdoor awning before I got the proper permits, but you don’t take away my livelihood and ability to serve liquor because of it. You wouldn’t tell McDonald’s they can’t serve hamburgers if they did not have enough parking spaces.”

My law partner, Russell Cormican handled the case for four of the establishments that retained our firm. This included the Boardwalk, LeBoy, Slammers, and the Ramrod, but obviously whatever determination the city made would have to be uniformly applied to all clubs, straight, gay, or pansexual. Russell summed up the city’s dilemma even more succinctly: “You don’t give someone the death penalty for a traffic ticket that’s a lane change infraction.”

Unfortunately, the city already had.

In our investigation into the city’s enforcement activities, we learned that the Cubby Hole on Federal Highway had already been closed at midnight because of an inconsequential transgression unrelated to the sale of liquor. This is no way to supervise bars in a city promoting its nightlife and beachside hotels as an international tourist destination. Trust me when I say that Las Vegas clubs which may be short on parking spaces are not losing their right to gamble.

Immediately upon being advised of the situation by the front page story which appeared in our newspaper, the city’s new mayor, Dean Trantalis, called an emergency meeting of his staff and those who were employing this ‘tough love’ method of discipline. “It was unjustified,” I told him.

Mayor Trantalis firmly and correctly stated he would review and address the issue with his staff. Under no circumstances should he allow, nor any of us expect, that there will be special dispensations for the LGBT community. Besides, this meeting was not just about the city’s seven gay clubs. This was about using the exacting penalty of denying a club an after hours license as a tool and mechanism for code compliance to any club, straight or gay.

Within minutes after meeting with his staff Trantalis, a gay man, made a straight, forward-thinking decision. He decisively proclaimed that the city’s method of enforcement was improper. Through his spokesperson, Scott Wyman, he announced that the city’s past history and future plans was to promote a business-friendly climate that encouraged voluntary compliance by hospitality establishments. Wyman explained the city’s goal was to create mutual prosperity, not individual hardships.

While this never was solely a gay issue only, our community must understand early on in the Trantalis administration that he may not come down on our side with every decision he has to make. He has an entire city to represent. There are competing interests and valid considerations for many issues. Still, there is reason not only to be proud, but happy. Given that previous mayors have flushed gay interests down the toilet or even refused to embrace gay marriages while the Supreme Court was doing so, I would say we are a lot better off today than yesterday.

Now that we have a voice in city hall and a place at the table it falls upon all of us to work together to present our community as professional and righteous, creating a city and environment that makes us principled and prosperous. Our new mayor has just led the way.

What can we say? Fabulous!


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