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Strip-Club Law Changes Halted by Council Mavericks

By Ted Cox | March 5, 2014 4:43pm
 Aldermen Bob Fioretti and John Arena want the City Council to reconsider what it's doing with changes to laws on strip clubs.
Aldermen Bob Fioretti and John Arena want the City Council to reconsider what it's doing with changes to laws on strip clubs.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — Two City Council mavericks moved to halt proposed changes to the city's adult-entertainment statute Wednesday that some said would have allowed liquor to be served at strip clubs with nude dancing.

Last month, Ald. Ed Burke (14th) spoke out in favor of the change, saying a "world-class city" needs "realistic kinds of adult entertainment venues" that could serve liquor and feature nude dancing.

But Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who sponsored the measure, said that wasn't his intent in pushing the change: he said he was simply trying to stop some businesses with a license to engage in adult entertainment, including selling adult books or movies, from switching overnight into strip clubs by declaring themselves cabarets without getting city approval.

 Ald. Edward Burke said adult-entertainment venues are a natural part of any "world-class city."
Ald. Edward Burke said adult-entertainment venues are a natural part of any "world-class city."
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

"When Ald. Burke said in zoning his comment about a world-class city needing this stuff, I was kind of stunned, and I didn't realize that was the angle he was taking," Waguespack said Wednesday.

Because aldermen couldn't seem to agree on what exactly the amended ordinance does, Aldermen Bob Fioretti (2nd) and John Arena (45th) said they wanted it held for additional consideration Wednesday, meaning they would have at least a month to study it.

"There's not a lot of comfort with it," Arena said. "I still have questions on what controls we'd have there."

The amended ordinance was headed for passage at Wednesday's City Council meeting when Fioretti and Arena moved to have it separated out to be deferred and published through a procedural measure. The proposal could be returned to committee or subcommittee hearings, but if not then would almost certainly be debated on the council floor at next month's meeting.

Fioretti also raised concerns over what impact the changes would have on the estimated 16,000 to 25,000 women engaged in prostitution in the city. "We have to be very careful how we implement this," he said.

"We can all beat our breasts that this is a world-class city and we need world-class adult entertainment, but the truth of the matter is we have an underlying social problem," Fioretti added, pointing not just at prostitution, but at human trafficking. "That underground activity undermines us as a city — a world-class city."

During last month's Zoning Committee hearing, when the subject first came up, Burke had said the amended law was a refinement of his own earlier "Burke's Law" limiting massage parlors through zoning restrictions. Concerned citizen George Blakemore joined him in saying "red-light districts" were a natural and enduring big-city attraction.

Burke subsequently said he was out to "codify" laws on strip clubs, allowing nudity to potentially mix with liquor service, currently permitted only at the North Side club VIP's after it reached a settlement with the city to continue operations. (Mayor Rahm Emanuel later touted using that settlement money to build a domestic-violence shelter.)

The ordinance thus appeared to allow other strip clubs to serve liquor as well, at least in theory, although they would have to clear several council hurdles to do so — an unlikely scenario. Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), for one, expressly said there would be no new strip clubs or red-light district in his Downtown ward.

Waguespack said the effect of his proposed ordinance was clear, to his way of thinking. "Anybody that is operating under present licenses would have to remain as is," he said Wednesday, meaning adult bookstores would have to remain adult bookstores, and strip clubs not serving alcohol would have to stay that way.

Yet, that left open the ordinance's effect on new or proposed businesses, as well as whether an alderman could be overruled on a strip club by the Zoning Board of Appeals. "I want to make it clear what this council is voting on," Fioretti said. "Are we giving alcohol to these establishments? Which ones are grandfathered out, which grandfathered in?" He added that he expected it to be debated in next month's council meeting.

Waguespack said he would welcome more discussion and that he expected a subcommittee to be formed in the coming weeks to address it, adding, "If we go back and we look at it more closely, I'm happy to do that."