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Effort to close brothels in one Nevada county fails to get enough signatures for ballot

Effort to close brothels in one Nevada county fails to get enough signatures for ballot
Owner Dennis Hof sits in front of the Love Ranch brothel in Crystal, Nev. (John Locher / Associated Press)

At least in one Nevada county, brothels appear to be in little danger of being forced to close anytime soon.

Opponents of legalized prostitution in Nye County had been trying to put the issue to voters in a referendum in November. But county officials said Monday the effort had failed to turn in the required 1,963 signatures. The deadline was Friday.

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The only recourse for proponents of the brothel elimination measure is to get county commissioners to agree to put it on the ballot — seemingly a long shot at this point.

Salli Kerr, executive director of the Nye County nonprofit No To Abuse, said the group was trying to persuade the commissioners to hold a special meeting to consider adding the measure to the November ballot before the July 16 deadline.

Nye County spokesman Arnold Knightly said the board’s chairman had already indicated he would not bring the item forward before the deadline. That leaves supporters of the measure needing at least two other commissioners to call a special meeting for next week. Kerr said those talks were in progress.

“It’s a tight time frame,” she said.

The group had also targeted Lyon County as a place to eliminate brothels with a signature-gathering drive. But the county’s Board of Commissioners decided in June to take a different approach to the issue by placing an advisory question on the ballot in November.

It will ask voters whether the board should end legalized prostitution in Lyon County. If the majority of voters choose to make it illegal, the board could choose to rescind the existing ordinance.

County Manager Jeff Page said in his 33 years working for Lyon County, he had never seen the Board of Commissioners go against the will of the voters on an advisory question that passed.

Both attempts have been viewed as the most significant to try and roll back legalized prostitution in Nevada. Passage of both would eliminate nearly half of the state’s brothels.

Nevada is the only place in the U.S. where brothels can operate legally. Because the law allows only counties with populations of less than 700,000 to license brothels, all 20 brothels across the state are in rural counties. They include the fabled Chicken Ranch in Nye County and the Mustang Ranch in Storey County.

Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, has a population too large to allow brothels.

Dennis Hof, 71, operates brothels in Lyon and Nye counties.

Hof, who won the Republican primary last month for a state Assembly seat by unseating a three-term incumbent, said the people trying to eliminate brothels underestimated Nevada’s libertarian, live-and-let-live identity.

“Here’s the way I look at it,” he said. “This was about freedom. You might not like prostitution or you may never be a customer, but what they’re saying is — don’t take any of my freedoms away.”

Hof’s primary victory brought a bigger spotlight to brothels, which have been regulated in Nevada since 1971. Hof was already famous for an HBO reality television series that took place at one of his brothels. He is also the author of a book, “The Art of the Pimp.”

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Kerr said that if Nye County commissioners didn’t take up the item this month, she would support future efforts to close brothels.

The current attempt suffered because it was rushed, she said. The loose group of ballot measure supporters — which was largely voluntary and seemed to be driven in part by some Christian pastors in Nye County — only came together in time to begin gathering signatures in April.

Kerr, whose nonprofit has worked with victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking in Nye County since the 1990s, agreed with backers of the measure that the brothel industry engaged in sex trafficking and victimized women.

In recent months, it was revealed that Hof had been accused of sexual assault more than a decade ago by at least two former sex workers. He has denied the allegations, and charges were never brought.

Christina Parreira, who worked in the brothel industry for four years and plans to return to it in the fall, said she never saw any evidence of sex trafficking and that the campaign against brothels is misguided.

“Everyone is there by choice,” she said. “It’s not a job for everyone and some may have a moral objection to it, but those moral objections don’t mean we can’t do our job. The sex trafficking is propaganda for people in the public that don’t know any better and don’t know what actually happens in a brothel.”

Opponents of the measure include a group called Nye County Freedom, which operated on social media and urged people not to sign the petition. Its volunteers handed out T-shirts outside the polling place on primary day in the town of Pahrump last month that read: “Protect Nye County Freedom.”

People who want to eliminate brothels are infringing on the rights of others to use them, said one volunteer, Sean Hunt.

Hof agreed and said the failure to get the signatures needed to eliminate brothels fit his new campaign slogan: “Make Nevada Nevada Again.”

“Let’s stop the nonsense and get back to business,” Hof said.

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