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City short on specifics, adult clubs say

Published Oct. 8, 2005

You might pass by Tattletales without a second thought.

It could be a restaurant, like its neighbor, El Capitan. It could be a health club. It could be a sports bar, with its smallish maroon-and-white sign eclipsed by the one for Sam's Club, Tattletales' other next-door neighbor on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.

Instead, Tattletales is a business that specializes in "adult entertainment." And according to Tattletales manager Gail Lee Hall, that is exactly why the city wants to get rid of it.

"I think (city officials) are trying to make Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard look like downtown Clearwater," Hall said. "Deserted."

It's easy to see why Hall thinks Tattletales, 2551 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., is being targeted. Two weeks ago, Tattletales and four other adult-oriented businesses on Gulf-to-Bay _ Baby Dolls, The Gentlemen's Style, Girls Girls Specialty Lingerie and Fantasy in Lingerie _ received notices that their occupational licenses were not being renewed because of city code violations. Without a license, businesses cannot legally operate.

Two of the businesses, The Gentlemen's Style, 2794 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., and Girls Girls Specialty Lingerie, 2462 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., have closed.

Each business "allowed a nuisance to be maintained," "engaged in or permitted disorderly or immoral conduct" and "repeatedly violated the Code," according to letters sent by Scott Shuford, who heads the city's central permitting department. Some businesses were cited because they did not apply for an adult use license. Those that did apply were told they did not meet zoning requirements. When a new zoning ordinance takes effect next month, none of these businesses will comply because of their proximity to churches, homes or one another.

City officials were tight-lipped about specifically how each business violated the code. The central permitting department, which keeps records on occupational licenses, had no documentation about violations, and Shuford said he was unaware of specifics. City Manager Betty Deptula said it would be inappropriate to comment. Police reports and other public records about the businesses could not be reviewed because they are under investigation, said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor.

Three of the businesses _ Baby Dolls, Tattletales and Fantasy in Lingerie _ have appealed to Deptula.

She has 30 days from the time she received the appeals to decide whether to reinstate the licenses. If she says no, the businesses can appeal at a public hearing before the City Commission. The businesses are allowed to review police files pertaining to them.

Attorneys for the appealing businesses maintain that in failing to renew the licenses, the city is not following its procedures. They said the charges were not specific and that nothing in the code says the city can deny an occupational license.

According to one section of the ordinance, the city can review each license to determine whether rules and regulations have been followed. That section states that if the business holding the license has not complied, the city manager may require it to apply for a new license.

Shuford's letter says the businesses failed to comply with various provisions and, "accordingly, your occupational license for the term commencing on October 1, 1994, will not be renewed."

The section doesn't specifically say the city retains the right not to renew a business' license but reads, "Nothing in the section shall be construed to mean that the licenses shall be issued as a matter of right."

"There's nothing unique about reviewing occupational licenses," Deptula said. "This isn't the first time this has been done." She declined to elaborate because the appeal is pending.

Steve Doherty, central permitting supervisor, conceded that adult entertainment establishments are a "delicate issue" to city officials and that these particular businesses were being reviewed more closely than others "because of the proliferation of these kinds of businesses in the city over the past few years."

"We've heard of problems that some people have with Clearwater's image being less than wholesome because of these businesses," Doherty said.

That's exactly the kind of talk that gets lawyer Luke Lirot screaming about First Amendment rights.

Lirot has defended several adult establishments throughout Tampa Bay against public criticism and municipal attempts to shut them down. Lirot talked about the possibility of a joint lawsuit.

"These businesses deserve respect like any other commercial business has," he said. "Given the political climate in the city of Clearwater, I'm not surprised that this happened."

No easy task

The decision to take away the licenses leaves another question: If you can get rid of adult businesses simply by not renewing their occupational licenses, why isn't every city doing it?

The answer is it's not that easy, said Robyn Blumner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, based in Miami. Instances of being a "public nuisance" or "acting immorally" should be well-documented, because if they aren't, "that city could be facing a good deal of litigation," Blumner said.

"There has to be a legitimate reason for not renewing their occupational licenses. You can't just shut these businesses down. They're constitutionally protected," Blumner said. "It's not sufficient to close a place down on generalities. They must provide specific instances."

Mark Winn, assistant city attorney in St. Petersburg, agreed that closing adult businesses is extremely difficult. St. Petersburg has been sued by several of them.

"You can't just outlaw these businesses. You must provide a reasonable number of alternative avenues," he said.

There are specific reasons why the businesses received the notices, police spokesman Shelor said, adding that code enforcement issues could have played as much a part as information from the police. Shelor said he could not even provide the number of violations because the information is being investigated. He did say the violations could have contributed to the notices.

Besides the businesses, each performer or employee must also retain an occupational license. County records show that within the past two years, several women who have worked for Baby Dolls, Tattletales, Fantasy in Lingerie and Girls Girls Specialty Lingerie have incurred misdemeanor and felony charges ranging from grand theft to possession of marijuana. Several dancers have been charged with performing without an occupational license and with "lap dancing" as recently as two weeks ago. Lap dancing is illegal in Pinellas County.

Additionally, county records show that a manager at Girls Girls Specialty Lingerie, Engelbert Buhler, has several felony charges this year _ grand theft, scheming to defraud and possession and delivery of marijuana. Some of the cases are pending. Buhler, 47, was unavailable for comment.

"Good, clean American fun'

Sitting in his small office at Tattletales, Hall said the lounge is being subjected to "Gestapo tactics." Tattletales has been around since 1987.

"This is a place with a very upscale- looking decor. We're not drawing attention to ourselves here. Nothing about our sign or appearance indicates what we do here," he said. "It's not like we have guys here p-----g in the corner and spitting on the floor."

Indeed, on a recent Wednesday night, the number of men watching and dancing with the performers was about equal to those watching sports on a big-screen television and eating from a free buffet. Dancers are never completely naked; they strip down to bikinis or underwear. The stage, complete with a sliding pole, and the hazy, purple decor are reminiscent of some rock videos.

"We're operating a clean operation here," Hall said, surveying the establishment. "I feel like we're being unfairly tried."

While Hall maintains that Tattletales is virtually problem-free, other businesses have had troubles.

Virginia Grove, co-owner of Nick and Angelo's, a restaurant at 2862 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., is relieved that former next-door neighbor Girls Girls Specialty Lingerie is gone.

"I wasn't really thrilled about them being there. We didn't have any major problems, but just the idea of that kind of business being there _ there were times when the police had to be called," Mrs. Grove said. "We were really thrilled when we found out they were gone."

A manager at Baby Dolls, which is highly visible at the edge of the city with purple neon signs that scream "Girls, Girls, Girls" and "Exotic Dancers," declined to comment.

Standing outside Tattletales at sunset, Hall summed up his feelings by pointing at the maroon-and-white sign, which now reads, "Clearwater _ We are here to stay."

"We're no different than a place like Perkins or Denny's," Hall said. "We provide good, clean American fun."