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Deep Inside L.A. Lap Dancing

It seemed like a politician’s dream deal: Los Angeles City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski’s no-lap-dancing law would get strip clubs in line with a more wholesome, Leave It to Beaver-like set of community standards while pleasing her Westside constituency. Instead, the council has taken a spanking from the adult entertainment industry, and the two sides are now hammering out a compromise law. After all the international headlines about how the porn capital of the world found something wrong with a little bump-‘n’-grind, a council vote on Friday, November 21, will likely keep local laps happy after all.

The slam-dunk ordinance passed in September but backfired for Miscikowski when 106,000 city voters signed a petition to put the matter on the ballot instead of on the books, as the council intended. Backers had more than twice the number of signatures needed to put the law to the electorate and keep the council’s version on hold until voters had a say. The council’s only choice now is to wait for a March 2005 ballot measure, or repeal the law and work out a deal with strip-club owners. It chose the latter, and the deal has none of the “conduct” restrictions of Miscikowski’s original law: Lap dancing is back, the six-foot-distance required between dancers and patrons is gone, and the no-touch-tipping rule has also been abandoned.

The city’s referendum process ultimately forced the council to strip those provisions from the law, says Adena Tessler, legislative deputy to Miscikowski. The process requires that once a council law is the subject of a certified, successful signature drive, the council cannot simply enact a similar ordinance.

Though rebuffed, the council will apparently still get some of what it wanted. Sexual touching during lap dances is still illegal. Adult venues will be required to hire state-certified, on-site security guards; patrons under age 18 will be banned; and clubs will have to undergo annual Police Commission permit reviews.

One twist is whether this back-room compromise will be legal in the shadow of a referendum process that is supposed to either kill the old law or put it to the popular vote. “I don’t think an agreement to replace this with another ordinance is legally enforceable, but I do think it’s politically enforceable,” says Roger Jon Diamond, the celebrity attorney representing a number of strip clubs in the council battle. In any case, both sides spun the compromise law as a victory.

“It’s a positive compromise,” Tessler says. “There are a lot of good things in this new ordinance, including the annual review process. We’re trying to deal with the illegal behavior and the opportunity to take money for sex. There’s not going to be that opportunity anymore.”

Diamond, however, says “it’s an absolute victory” for the venues. “Had we not done the referendum,” he says, “[the lap-dance law] would have taken effect, and most of these clubs would be out of business already.”

Organizers of the signature drive say the 106,000 signatures reflect community outrage toward a council focused on a “non-issue” when the police department is sorely under-funded and the state budget crisis is squeezing local coffers. Critics of the ordinance long claimed that Miscikowski had picked lap dancing as an easy target for political glory that would effect little meaningful change.

Misinformation was common. In the Los Angeles Times, constituent Cristi Walden complained that six adult businesses had opened in her West L.A. neighborhood in the last 10 years. The true number was closer to four, including one venue that indeed was the site of a citation for suspected prostitution, but it was a good sound bite for the morality crusade. But there apparently weren’t enough crusaders for the battle.

Sources pointed out to CityBeat, for example, that Miscikowski’s law would cover alcohol-serving “topless bars,” even though such establishments already had to abide by similar statewide rules that were rarely enforced. (“We don’t do a lot of enforcement at those locations,” admitted a top vice officer at the Los Angeles Police Department.) It begged the question of why additional laws were needed when the police department, down more than 1,000 officers from its mandated operating levels, could barely put enough badges on the mean streets. Patrolling the laps of strip-joint patrons isn’t a top priority and won’t likely be anytime soon. But after a July issue of CityBeat reported witnessing innocent violations of the state’s own no-contact rules at topless bars such as Cheetah’s in Hollywood, that venue was reportedly raided.

Z Bone, who hosts perhaps the region’s oldest and most prominent strip- club guide,, says Miscikowski underestimated a tie-and-lager demographic that doesn’t go to strip clubs regularly but likes to know they’re there. The anti-lap-dance ordinance was belittled and council representatives were flogged regularly on testosterone-driven talk radio.

“I suspect that there might be more than a few people who might vote against some of the council members who pushed for this ordinance,” Z Bone says. “Some of the smaller cities have passed similar ordinances, and since there were very few existing clubs in that city, they quietly closed down and went away. I think it was a miscalculation on the part of the L.A. City Council members to think that the same thing would happen in L.A. – with over 40 clubs that would have been affected. These clubs combined generate tens of millions in revenue per year for their owners, and spending millions to fight the ordinance was just another business expense for them.”

“No one is saying that these businesses should go away,” counters Tessler of Miscikowski’s office, “just that they should be responsible.”

Still up for debate is the council’s attempt to outlaw private “VIP rooms” at strip clubs. Miscikowski argues that vice officers have a hard time seeing what’s going on inside them and that prostitution could occur out of view. “VIP lounges will no longer be okay,” says Tessler. “All the areas where entertainment is going on need to be open. That really allows our vice and investigators the ability to walk through and see there’s no problems.”

But Steve Afriat, a hired lobbyist who ran the signature-gathering campaign at supermarkets, sporting events, and the clubs themselves, is holding out for the rooms.

“We’re trying to have the council understand that VIP rooms are what we call them, not dark little rooms where illicit activity is going on,” Afriat says. “We have famous people who come to our clubs – movie stars and TV actors and pro sports athletes – and they want to enjoy the entertainment at the clubs unfettered by busybodies and people who would make it hard for them. They go to restaurants and nightclubs and sit in private rooms, and this is no different. Perhaps the council would let us do it with glass walls.”

L.A. City Beat



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