The unmistakable voice of County Commissioner Ronda Storms made me stop in my tracks.
She was talking to two other people after the Governor's Day Luncheon on Monday, but her words were meant for me.
"And that newspaper guy right there thinks there's nothing wrong with them."
I turned around and said, "Excuse me?"
She explained she was talking about nude bars. She said the fact that I had never written a column against strip clubs indicated I must be for them.
I don't want Storms to be burdened with explaining to people how I feel about adult entertainment, so let me set the record straight.
I am not for or against adult establishments, but I am for good government and effective leadership.
Storms has spent a great deal of time trying to strengthen the county's ordinances against adult establishments, and that is her prerogative. I do wonder, however, if the legal approach is the right one because it often results in hefty court settlements for adult entertainment owners.
Consider the recent battle over a proposed bikini bar in Valrico. According to David Ford, a former county building official who testified in a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Scriven, Storms asked him to do her a favor by delaying the bar a certificate of occupancy.
The request may have put Storms in violation of the county charter, and Scriven said it appears the county has no grounds to stop the bar from opening. Owner Jamie Rand is threatening a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, and even if he doesn't win, there's no doubt county attorneys have devoted a huge chunk of time and taxpayer dollars to address the issue.
So would I prefer that Storms and the County Commission do nothing? Not necessarily. I think an argument can be made that many of Storms' constituents oppose adult establishments. After all, at a recent rally for Storms, a man said, "I don't want my granddaughter to become a go-go dancer."
However, isn't building the granddaughter's self-esteem and giving her life skills the most effective way in preventing her from spinning around a pole? The county sets aside money for nonprofits that address these areas, but I'm certain each group could be more effective if it had more funding.
Consider this: In 1995, Joe Redner received $230,000 from the county in a settlement after successfully winning an appeal about Mons II, a nude bar he briefly opened in Brandon before authorities closed it. The fact Redner received the money two years after the bar closed makes the reward even more outrageous.
Now, go ask officials with the Ophelia Project, which works to create strong support networks for girls, what they could do with $230,000. Ask the Healthy Start Coalition how many more young single mothers it could help with $230,000.
Heck, that kind of money could have been used to start a program that would teach boys and young men to hold women in higher regard.
If Rand gets even a fraction of $230,000 in his current suit, it'll be another disappointment.
Sure, the county has every right to use the courts to uphold ordinances. But the commission needs to pick and choose its battles and realize there are other ways to respond.
For example, you can't pin the current school crowding crisis solely on the County Commission, but what if a board member concerned about educational opportunities for young girls had proposed increasing impact fees to pay for more schools?
Theoretically, improved schools would lead to more girls having marketable skills, more girls attending college and fewer girls resorting to dancing for money.
But no one on the commission made such a proposal, and now we have the lowest impact fees in the state and a school district that's grappling with a $364-million construction shortfall. Increasing impact fees several years ago wouldn't completely have solved the problem, but it would have helped.
By the way, Storms has served on the County Commission since 1998.
To me, it's a matter of how you view the community. Do you see our residents as inherently bad people who need to be protected from themselves? Or do you see them as inherently good people who simply need to be nurtured to make good decisions?
There may always be men who want to patronize strip clubs and women who want to work in them, but if there we are fewer customers and even fewer dancers, maybe we wouldn't have as many clubs.
That's all I'm saying, Commissioner Storms.
Ernest Hooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3406.