Yesterday the Grand Rapids City Commission passed the new adult entertainment ordinance outlawing nude dancing at strip clubs along with a host of other restrictions that will surely render these fine establishments pointless to their clientele. The lone dissent was Second Ward City Commissioner Rick Tormala, who objected to the City getting mired into another Velvet Touch fiasco. Mayor George Heartwell, moralizer-in-chief, disingenuously explained that the ordinance was vital not for moral reasons but as a public health measure.
In fact, for the past two years Heartwell has been pressured by neighborhood activist Judy Rose who has vociferously opposed the opening of Mark London's new all-nude strip joint on Market Avenue in the southwest corner of downtown. (Not incidentally, right smack in the middle of the "Mystery Development".) In response to one of Rose's letters to him, Heartwell copied it to the City Attorney's office with plea to find out a way to appease her. The result was the new ordinance crafted and advocated by a lawyer out of Tennessee, who just happened to be the very same outside counsel for the City in the Velvet Touch litigation that the City lost and cost the taxpayers more than a quarter million dollars in attorney fees and other expenses.
Looks like the man from Tennessee has got himself a new gig, because London and the owners of the Parkway Tropics and the Red Barn have vowed to file suit against the City's enforcement of the new ordinance, provoking the costly legal battle that Tormala wanted to avoid. Of course, Heartwell and the others will argue that they anticipated this and so got a financial commitment from activist Rose to fund the City's defense of the new ordinance. Indeed, Rose claims to have a secret group of backers who have pledged $100,000 to cover the costs of the City Attorney's office. For anyone who has any sense of what properly constitutes democratic governance, this is all very troubling.
First of all, there is problem of the pledge itself. There is no contractual obligation for Rose or her group to provide any funds to cover the City's costs. This has been confirmed by a FOIA request we made to the City, which Assistant City Attorney Catherine Mish answered by certifying that no such contract exists. So there is no enforceable commitment by anyone to defray the costs the taxpayers will have to bear for this boondoggle.
Second, even if we trust Rose to produce the funds she collects, where are they? What assurance do the taxpayers have that they exist? The only cash in hand Rose admits to having is about $1,000. The rest are pledges from a secret list of businessmen. No one in the City has this list, which again was confirmed by our recent FOIA request. The only thing we know is that City Attorney Phil Balkema claims to have seen Rose's list, but he is committed to not disclosing what he saw. Just who the hell is Balkema working for? Rose or the taxpayers?
Which brings us to the final point: The blithe disregard our elected officials have for, what is in effect, the purchase by a secret group of private citizens of the city government's legal standing to pursue their agenda in court. Assume that the money Rose says is pledged to the cause of shutting down London and his ilk will be produced to pay for the City's litigation costs. Why are Heartwell and five city commissioners ready to sell her the City Attorney's office? If Rose and her cohorts can buy the City's lawyers to do their bidding, where does it stop?
It is lethal to democratic governance to permit the sale the City's sovereignty to anyone with the bucks to employ it to his private ends. The authority of the City government exists to serve the general public interest, not that of any particular private party. If the City cannot afford to defend a controversial ordinance that a vocal element of the public wants, then it should not pass the ordinance, period. Taking money from the proponents of the ordinance to overcome that problem is to post a for-sale sign on lawmaking. Shame on Heartwell and his allies who passed the new adult entertainment ordinance.