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Fight against adult businesses costly for city of Houston

Houston- It’s a big bill for so few clothes.

The city has spent nearly $1.3 million since 1997 on outside lawyers to
defend a sweeping sexually oriented business ordinance against legal
challenges from topless bars, adult book stores and “modeling” studios,
officials say.

That figure doesn’t include the likely equal amount of time city
lawyers have spent over the years supporting and advising the outside
legal team.

City Attorney Arturo Michel said defending the ordinance has been an
unusually costly and time-consuming process.

“It involved more legal work, and clearly more work with people looking
at the data and preparing for trial,” he said. “With most other
litigation, we typically don’t appropriate anything that’s even close
to that.”

Not surprisingly, the city’s policymakers and the adult industry
diverge on the necessity of fighting over the ordinance, which, among
many regulations, prohibits the businesses from opening within 1,500 of
feet of schools, churches, parks and day care centers.

“It is a ludicrous use of the city of Houston’s money, absolutely
ludicrous,” said Nelson Hensley, a local lawyer who represents five
adult cabarets that could be forced to close or move should the
ordinance stand.

Mayor Bill White said the city can’t be bullied in court, even if the
cost raises a “fair question.”

“I would prefer that people not litigate against lawful ordinances,” he
said. “It’s also important that the city show a commitment to fighting
these lawsuits.”

The cost of that fight is sure to grow. A federal judge ruled in March
that the city could begin enforcing the distance rules in the
ordinance. The provision also restricts adult businesses from
clustering together or operating near largely residential areas.

That means employees in as many as 150 such businesses could face
arrest if they don’t relocate.

The Houston Police Department’s vice unit is planning what White has
characterized as an aggressive enforcement campaign.

To stave that off, a group of adult businesses is appealing to the 5th
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — an effort they say eventually could
extend to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition, at least nine businesses have filed lawsuits in state
courts here in recent days.

The suits challenge the ordinance’s provision for “amortization,” a
process by which the city could let clubs operate for a period after
the law takes effect so owners can recoup their investments before
moving or closing.

A suit filed on behalf of Treasures and three other clubs, for example,
challenges the city’s process as “arbitrary and capricious.”

“No criteria or guidelines are established so as to determine a proper
formula for amortizing one’s business and such determination is left to
the unbridled whim and discretion of a hearing official appointed by
the City of Houston,” wrote the businesses’ attorney, Al Van Huff of
Houston.

He and others want more time, but the lawyer handling the case for the
city said he suspects the courts will decide they’ve had plenty since
the ordinance passed.

“We are looking at whether the 10 years that they’ve been operating
would be more than enough amortization,” said the attorney, Pat Zummo,
who charges the city half what his private-sector clients get billed.

Put in perspective, the growing $1.3 million is a fraction of the
city’s multibillion-dollar annual operation. The city, for example,
expects to spend the same this fiscal year on paper and printing
supplies, and the figure represents only about a tenth of the legal
department’s entire annual budget.

In an era of rising public safety and health care costs, though, White
and other city officials acknowledge it’s a considerable sum.

Some local activists say they appreciate the effort, despite the costs.

“Can you really put a price on the quality of life?” asked Jackie
Mayhorn, president of the city’s Super Neighborhood Alliance.

Kelly DeHay, a Houston real estate agent who volunteers his time
fighting graffiti in the Neartown area, said the city is reacting to
the wishes of its residents.

“The city never would have spent that kind of money if they hadn’t had
complaints,” DeHay said.

The businesses and their attorneys see it differently, saying the money
could be better spent on more police officers or firefighters. Hensley
also questioned whether the ordinance is in keeping with Houston’s
entrepreneurial spirit.

“You take a city without zoning, and then come back and say, ‘We’re
going to target one business, and one business only, and we’re going to
spend whatever it takes because of the moral value of this,’ ” Hensley
said. “On so many different levels, I think that is foul.”

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