Over the protests of angry residents, the Los Angeles City Council retreated Friday from its ban on lap dancing and voted to allow near-naked women to continue gyrating in customers' laps.
Council members said they had little choice but to reverse the ban once adult business owners had collected enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue on the March 2005 ballot. If the measure had succeeded, a host of new regulations on strip clubs would have been thrown out along with the lap-dancing ban.
Rather than take a chance on a costly and politically disruptive public campaign, council members voted 11 to 0 for a compromise in which lap dancing would be allowed, but the city's 40 adult clubs would accept some strict new rules. Among them: Private "VIP rooms," where some fear prostitution is occurring, will be banned; touching of breasts and genitals will not be allowed; and clubs will be forced to hire state-licensed security guards and renew their permits every year.
"Politics is oftentimes compromise," Councilman Dennis Zine said. "While this may not be what I want ... it's a whole lot better than what we have now."
That reasoning did not satisfy residents living near some of the clubs. They accused the council of collapsing in the face of political pressure.
"This referendum was used as blackmail against this council," West Los Angeles resident Vickie Casas said. "Rather than standing up and having the backbone ... you caved in to the power and the money of the adult entertainment industry. And I am ashamed of my council today."
The vote caps a six-month City Hall debate about lap dancing that has featured colorful testimony from strippers who said they were just trying to earn a living and disgusted homeowners who complained that strip clubs foster public sex and prostitution in surrounding neighborhoods.
The issue has also demonstrated the power of the referendum process when wielded by a well-financed interest group.
On Sept. 16, after months of wrangling, council members voted unanimously on a batch of regulations that would have effectively banned lap dancing by requiring strippers to stay at least six feet away from customers in the city's adult businesses. The new rules, which were pushed by Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, also outlawed direct tipping of dancers; prohibited private VIP rooms, some of which contain beds; and required clubs to renew their permits every year and hire licensed security guards.
Officials said the regulations, set to take effect Jan. 1, were necessary to curb prostitution and because the clubs were creating a nuisance in neighborhoods.
But club owners decried the rules, saying they violated the 1st Amendment and would drive them out of business and force scores of women out of work. They said the ban on lap dancing would be particularly damaging to business. Within weeks, they spent $400,000 to dispatch signature gatherers to supermarket parking lots, college campuses and bars to collect more than 100,000 signatures to force the matter onto the ballot.
That left council members with a choice. They could rescind the ordinance and replace it with one that was substantially different or they could put it before voters in March 2005, at a time when seven members will be up for reelection.
Steven Afriat, lobbyist for the strip clubs, warned that putting lap dancing on the ballot would turn the election into "a joke" and that "anyone associated with it becomes part of the circus."
If voters were to side with club owners, moreover, other strip club regulations would also be lost.
Council members said it was this fear that prompted them to come back and draft the compromise.
"The stakes are too high for us to lose," said Councilman Ed Reyes. "I am not happy with where we are at, but I also understand the wisdom of the process."
But if the new rules do not work, Miscikowksi said, council members themselves would consider putting the matter before voters.
"We will look at this in six months," she said.
Before the council voted in favor of the compromise measure, members voted 10 to 1 against putting the referendum before voters. Councilman Tony Cardenas was the lone dissenter.
"This is just wrong, for us to allow any industry to impede the quality of life for our communities," Cardenas said.
That prompted applause from homeowners.
"This is a sad day for the people in Los Angeles," said Jay Handal, president of the West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. "Special interests have won."