Restrictions on Fort Wayne's sexually oriented businesses approved in 2017 will remain intact despite four City Council members voting Tuesday to repeal them.
Strip club employees have reported a decrease in safety at their workplaces since the ordinance went into effect. Councilman Jason Arp, R-4th, proposed a partial repeal of the ordinance that requires clubs to close from midnight to 7 a.m. daily and sets other restrictions.
The 2017 ordinance states that employees cannot appear semi-nude unless separated from patrons by 6 feet, on a stage at least 18 inches off the floor and in a room no less than 600 square feet.
The repeal failed by a 5-4 vote with Councilmen Tom Didier, R-3rd; Paul Ensley, R-1st; Russ Jehl, R-2nd; Geoff Paddock, D-5th; and Tom Freistroffer, R-at large, voting against it. Sharon Tucker, D-6th, Glynn Hines, D-at large, Michelle Chambers, D-at large, and Arp voted for the repeal.
Scott Bergthold, the attorney who represented the city in a recent related lawsuit, said dancers wearing thong underwear and pasties covering their nipples are considered to be semi-nude, which is allowed on stage. In order to have contact with patrons or to work on the floor, dancers are required by the ordinance to be wearing at least a bikini that covers the dancer's buttocks.
Before Arp presented the partial repeal of the 2017 ordinance, he yielded the floor to Bergthold and Fort Wayne Police Capt. Kevin Hunter for a presentation in support of the restrictions. Bergthold said the industry pressures dancers to perform illegal activities and increases crime in the areas surrounding strip clubs.
Bergthold shared the rate of police runs to a few local strip clubs before the ordinance went into place, as well as court cases that have set precedent for the law. The ordinance is about preventing “paid sexual simulation in private,” which Bergthold said is unlawful.
The Fort Wayne Police Department has not been strained by enforcing the ordinance, Hunter said, and no citations or fines have been issued because of it.
An appeals court upheld Allen Superior Court Judge Jennifer DeGroote's ruling against several local strip club operators who sued the city, saying the ordinance would irreparably harm their businesses. Bergthold used the rulings as evidence to keep the ordinance intact.
Arp started by poking holes in many of the statements Bergthold had made during his presentation. He said the acts the ordinance prohibits are still being done but in private locations without security.
“Like I've said, we can go tit-for-tat all night,” Arp said to Bergthold before yielding the floor to Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, D-6th.
The councilwoman asked for clarification on why the ordinance was put into place in the first place, such as if it was to protect the dancers.
“I would summarize it this way. You are preventing crimes, such as prostitution and drug-related crimes, that are documented in many, many studies to occur in establishments,” Bergthold said.
Tucker wanted to focus on what is actually happening in Fort Wayne. She then moved on to what the next moral panic will be.
“What's next that we are going to legislate in terms of morality?” Tucker asked, repeating the question until Bergthold said he didn't know.
Councilman Tom Freistroffer brought up concerns that repealing the ordinance would affect zoning code in Fort Wayne. Arp said that is why he has proposed a partial repeal, leaving the parts required for zoning code intact.
Freistroffer invited Bob Eherenman, local attorney, to explain how the zoning code could still be vulnerable. Eherenman said zoning regulations could be defeated more easily because of the repeal of the ordinance aimed at secondary effects of strip clubs.
A woman who only identified herself by first name – Ashley – addressed council at Arp's request to explain the problems the ordinance has placed on local dancers. To skirt the restrictions, dancers are often asked to go outside of the club by patrons, she said.
Ashley makes about a quarter of the tips that she made before the ordinance, she said. Some dancers have made up the lost income by performing in private places such as homes, and she said at least five have been physically assaulted as a result and at least one has been raped.
“We may not like what is going on,” Arp said of strip clubs, “but at least we know there that there's a sober adult to be able to stop any attacks – pronto.”