To some in Canoga Park, the Xposed Gentlemen's Club is an unwelcome neighborhood landmark.
Residents complain about its sultry billboards featuring scantily clad women. The LAPD tried — and failed — to shut it down, citing complaints of violence, prostitution and drug use. There was a shooting in the parking lot last year; a man's throat was slit in the club a few years back.
But the strip club has survived, and its management has made an unusual move — seeking seats on the very same neighborhood council that has been a forum for complaints about it.
The owner and two employees of the club ran for seats on the council last month, and one was elected. Club owner Brad Barnes, a former Chippendales dancer who worked for years as an adult film star under the name "Brick Majors," lost. But in the coming weeks, the council will vote on his request to be appointed to the board, which advises City Hall on local issues.
The effort has been the talk of Canoga Park, a working-class suburb in the west San Fernando Valley, with some residents complaining that the strip club is trying to co-opt the very civic body designed to give neighborhoods a voice about issues such as the problems posed by businesses.
The controversy highlights a problem that has plagued the council system almost since its inception: the role of businesses and special interest groups in influencing the panels.
Los Angeles' network of neighborhood councils was devised in the 1990s and picked up steam as a way to appease San Fernando Valley residents wanting to secede from the city. The all-volunteer panels have played significant roles in advising City Hall on planning and zoning issues, but they also have been vulnerable to special-interest takeovers.
A decade ago, a developer of the Playa Vista community — facing opposition to the development — bused its construction workers to a neighborhood council election in Westchester, rewarding them with free beer and chicken wings.
More recently, in 2012, medical marijuana advocates offered free pot to anyone who cast a vote in Eagle Rock's neighborhood council election.
Last year, the City Council voted to tighten a controversial rule that allowed "Starbucks stakeholders" — people allowed to vote in neighborhood council elections simply by showing a receipt from a neighborhood business. Now, voters must show proof they work, live, own property or have a membership in a community organization within council boundaries.
In Canoga Park, the strip club's attempt for seats on the neighborhood council has generated criticism.
"They're just kind of laughing at everybody, getting away with what they want, and nobody can do anything about it," said Bob Oedy, who lives a mile from Xposed. "The police know it's a problem. The politicians know it's a problem. But nobody wants to do anything."
Others, however, say the strip club is as entitled to a seat at the table as any other community stakeholder.
"Some people might have a problem with their business," said Canoga Park Neighborhood Council President Corinne Ho. But she added: "They have a right to be here."
Xposed, a full-nude strip club, has been a source of controversy since it opened in 2001.
Its hulking gray building at 8229 Canoga Ave. also is home to a bikini bar, called the Wet Spot, and a sex toy shop called Private Moments. Barnes, a Calabasas resident, owns all three.
The Los Angeles Police Department said it had received dozens of calls to the property in recent years, including reports of assault with a deadly weapon, theft and prostitution. A liquor store, not owned by Barnes, also operates in the strip mall, which escalates the potential for crime, residents say.
Several months ago, the city's Office of Zoning Administration considered closing down the club or declaring it a public nuisance and restricting its operation after receiving complaints from police, according to zoning administrator R. Nicolas Brown, who decided the case.
There was a shooting outside the club in September while the case was being considered. Two men fought in the parking lot after the club closed; one opened fire as he drove away, injuring the other man. In 2007, a customer was in the club talking to a dancer when another man walked up behind him and slit his throat, killing him.
Neighborhood Council President Ho and Vice President Ronald Clary wrote to the zoning administration last fall urging action: "The situation continues to worsen, and it is clear that now lives are at stake."
Barnes argued that police had exaggerated violence at the club and that most of the emergency calls involved "dancer on dancer conflicts." Among the "deadly weapons" cited by police were a curling iron and high-heeled shoe, he said. Barnes said he has numerous security guards on the property.
Barnes enlisted the help of a former Los Angeles City councilman known for cracking down on strip clubs. While on the City Council, Dennis Zine personally attended a police raid of a Tarzana club, the Frisky Kitty, and successfully fought to have it shut down.
Zine, who consulted for Barnes after leaving council office, took a different attitude toward Xposed. The former councilman, who declined to say how much he was paid by Barnes for his advice, said he told Barnes to work with the police and neighborhood council to address complaints and show that he was a cooperative business owner.
The zoning administration sided with Barnes, saying in January that because there were multiple businesses in the area and a large, adjacent post office parking lot that attracted crime, it could not be proven that his businesses caused problems.
Soon after the case, Barnes and his employees announced their bids for neighborhood council.
Club manager Avi Feinstein, who won a seat, said his motive had little to do with the club. The 27-year-old Army veteran plans to attend law school and views the experience as a way to learn about government.
Barnes echoed that sentiment, saying he is running not as a club owner seeking influence but rather as a longtime Valley resident who wants to participate in local civic life. He said his interest was sparked after spending so much time
at neighborhood council meetings during the zoning case.
"There are a lot of issues facing the community that need to be addressed, and I feel I'm educated enough and informed enough to have my input," he said, adding that he is especially concerned about potholes and promoting local businesses.
After he lost his election bid, he asked council members to appoint him to an open seat; they will make that decision this spring.