Los Angeles City Council members backed down Tuesday from a showdown with strip club owners and said they would allow near-naked women to keep gyrating in men's laps, a lucrative form of adult entertainment known as lap dancing that the council had voted this fall to ban.
The hasty retreat by the council comes after a well-choreographed campaign by club owners, who threatened to put lap dancing on the March 2005 ballot -- which, if approved by voters, would put regulation beyond the council's reach.
In forcing the council to reverse its position, strip club owners demonstrated both the volatility of the sex industry as a political issue and the effectiveness of the referendum process when wielded by a well-financed interest group.
Days after the council voted in September to ban lap dancing and impose a host of new regulations, the industry raised $400,000 to collect enough signatures to force a referendum on the new law. Council members said Tuesday that a citywide vote on lap dancing would be a political distraction, with seven of the 15 council members facing reelection on the same ballot.
"The stakes are real high," said City Councilman Ed Reyes, who cites the adult clubs in his East Los Angeles district as a threat to children and families. "If we go to the ballot and lose, we are not going to be able to regulate. We don't have millions of dollars to spend on a campaign, and these folks have millions to spare."
Council members said they hoped a compromise plan would better regulate the city's 40 strip clubs, which have drawn complaints of public sex and prostitution in surrounding neighborhoods.
"I don't see it as caving," Reyes said. "I see it as what we can work with."
Not everyone agrees.
"The message this council is sending to every well-heeled special interest group is that, if they don't like a law ... all they have to do is spend a few hundred thousand and the council will be intimidated and they'll back off and gut the law," said Thomas Donovan, a member of the Westside Residents Assn. and a supporter of the lap-dance ban.
Lap dancing has wrought six months of colorful debate at City Hall, including testimony by an exotic dancer that she merely cuddled on a bed with customers such as an 85-year-old widower, and descriptions by outraged residents of used condoms littering their neighborhoods.
As approved in September and set to take effect Jan. 1, the new city law would have required strippers to stay at least six feet away from customers in the city's adult businesses, effectively outlawing lap dancing. It also would have banned direct tipping of dancers, prohibited private "VIP" rooms and required clubs to renew their permits every year and to hire state-licensed security guards.
Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who spearheaded the effort to rein in strip clubs, said her office had been working with community groups and club owners on a compromise ordinance.
Though details are still to be worked out, the compromise would eliminate the six-foot rule, meaning lap dances again would be legal, as would tipping.
Miscikowski said the compromise ordinance would keep some of its teeth: Private VIP rooms, where some feared that prostitution was occurring, would disappear; touching of breasts and genitals would be prohibited; and annual license renewal would make it easier for the city to crack down on operators that break the law. Now it is difficult now for the city to yank a permit, she said, even when violations have been committed. The security-guard requirement also would remain in place.
"When the dust has settled," Miscikowski said, "we will have moved the ball forward."
Miscikowski asked the city attorney on Tuesday to prepare a new ordinance reflecting the compromises, with a council vote Friday. Under city law, council members have until Friday either repeal the law or place it on the 2005 ballot.
Jay Handal, president of the West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, said the compromise was "a political reality" that would do "some good" in curbing problems around strip clubs.
He said his side might have trouble raising money to wage an election campaign against strip club owners if council members put the referendum on the ballot.
"I think trying to raise millions for an issue that many don't believe is an issue is counterproductive," Handal said.
Los Angeles is only the latest city to face a political storm in dealings with the adult entertainment industry -- and the issue has so far been mild here in comparison.
Earlier this month in Las Vegas' Clark County, one county commissioner and two former commissioners were indicted on charges that included accepting bribes from a strip club owner in exchange for scuttling an attempt to enact a no-touch rule for dancers and customers. And earlier this year in San Diego, three city council members were accused of accepting illegal campaign contributions in exchange for a promise to help persuade the rest of the council to rescind its lap dancing ban.
There have been no such allegations of misconduct in Los Angeles.
A council committee took up the issue in June, with backers saying the new rules were necessary to curb prostitution and improve the quality of life in some neighborhoods. Proponents also said the laws were necessary because surrounding cities have enacted strict laws, leading to an increase of lap dancing in Los Angeles.
After months of debate, the council unanimously approved the law on Sept. 16. Along the way, several council committees voted in favor of the ordinance.
But strip club owners were incensed, saying it violated their 1st Amendment rights and would drive them out of business, in the process taking jobs away from scores of women, some of them single mothers.
They dispatched professional signature gatherers to supermarket parking lots and bars and quickly collected more than 100,000 signatures, forcing the city to either repeal the ordinance or put it on the ballot.
Alan Weinstein, a law professor at Cleveland State University who has studied attempts to regulate adult businesses across the country, said city officials could face an uphill battle if they tried to persuade voters to ban lap dancing.
"The problem for the city is convincing people that, while cabarets have a right to exist," patrons who enter "don't have a right to the entertainment of their choice," he said. "That's a difficult argument to make."
Steven Afriat, the strip club owners' lobbyist, said in an interview that his polling data showed that most Los Angeles voters did not think the City Council should be wasting energy on a lap-dancing ordinance. And at a time when officials are considering asking voters to approve a tax to hire more police officers, Afriat said, lap dancing has the potential to "permeate the city's agenda, and the city ought to take this off the table."
"If this referendum goes on to the ballot, the election becomes a joke, and anyone associated with it is part of the circus," Afriat said. "I think it is preferable that we negotiate a compromise."