Local officials are getting a primer on relatively new legal tools that can help them regulate the way adult-oriented businesses operate.
Ohio’s townships, villages and municipalities also are learning they can look to the Ohio Attorney General for legal defense if adult-oriented business owners challenge local ordinances or regulations in federal court.
“We’re not specifically trying to attack or address free-speech issues, per se,” said Harry West, a Mansfield attorney who represents various local governments. “You can’t exclude those (adult-oriented businesses) completely from the community. You can make it very restrictive, but you have to have it in someplace where it’s potentially available.”
At a recent meeting hosted by the Erie Regional Planning Commission, West brought dozens of township and city officials up to speed on the state’s take on adult-oriented businesses.
In 2007, Ohio passed new legislation regulating multiple elements of adult-oriented businesses, such as requiring strip clubs to close from midnight to 6 a.m. or, if they have liquor permits, allowing them to stay open until 2 a.m. under the condition they provide only semi-nude entertainment during those extra two hours.
Another contentious regulation prohibits dancers from touching customers. Advocates of the Ohio’s adult-entertainment industry argued the provision would effectively obliterate their business, but U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. upheld the “no-touch” ban last month.
Townships historically have had almost no power to regulate the operations or conduct at adult-oriented businesses. That is, until state legislators passed new laws in 2007 giving townships the authority to draft regulations governing strip clubs, adult book stores and similar venues, West said.
The problem is, most elected officials don’t know about it.
“If this is an area you want to regulate, I think you’ve been given some unique opportunities in getting assistance from the attorney general’s office,” West said to a crowd of about 30 elected officials at the meeting at BGSU Firelands.
The law gives townships the same power cities and home-rule townships enjoy, wherein various regulations are folded into the licensing process.
The owner and employees at a strip club, for instance, would have to agree to a criminal background check and provide photo identification, fingerprints and other information.
But the law also allows townships to create laws governing criminal offenses at these businesses, such as requiring customers to remain up to 6 feet away from dancers or prohibiting dancers from touching customers.
Anyone guilty of violating the laws could face a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The unusual aspect of the law, West said, is the attorney general will defend townships, cities or villages whose regulation of adult-oriented businesses is challenged in federal court.
The catch: The townships or government bodies have to adopt a draft resolution from the attorney general’s office if they want the free legal defense.
“It’s the first time I’m aware of where the attorney general provides to townships any legal service,” West said.
The model resolutions drafted by the attorney general’s office are more or less lock-tight against any legal challenges, West said, so they can’t be altered by elected officials who adopt them.
There’s a draft resolution for licensing requirements, and a second draft resolution governing conduct in those businesses.
“The attorney general is saying, ‘If you adopt our standard ordinance ... we provide free assistance,’” West said.
Most lawsuits filed by adult-oriented businesses end up in federal courts because of free-speech issues, but also because the owners of such businesses don’t want to deal with the “hometown” mentality of local courts, West said.
Another feature of the law: If a township or city adopts the attorney general’s draft resolutions and is sued, it’s essentially absolved of liability in the case of a loss, West said.
For a city like Sandusky, which has just one strip club — Tea House of the Dancing Lady on Tiffin Avenue — the new law is something that could pique some interest.
“I didn’t know about any of this,” said Dan Kaman, a Sandusky city commissioner who attended the meeting at which West laid out the new law. “I’m glad to hear it, though. We should go over our things compared to the (state’s). If ours is different, we may want to go with their program.”
Sandusky always has been able to regulate adult-oriented businesses, but only now does it have the option to draft a resolution that will give the city free legal defense if it’s ever sued in federal court by an adult-oriented business owner.
“I was planning on bringing it up to (the law director) at the next city commission meeting,” Kaman said.
Officials in small townships are taking interest in the new legal devices at their disposal, too.
Green Creek Township was ground zero for a spirited outcry years ago when residents and officials there learned there was little they could do to keep a strip club from opening on U.S. 20.
“It’s interesting news,” Gene Slotto, a Green Creek Township trustee, said of the new laws. “Right now, there’s not much we can do about it.”
In January, Marblehead officials enacted an ordinance regulating zoning for adult-oriented businesses, but no one there was familiar with the attorney general’s take on the licensing issue.
“If there’s something out that where we can make it foolproof, we’re all for it,” Marblehead Mayor Jacqueline Bird said. “If there’s something more we can do to concrete what we have out there — especially if we’re ever challenged — it sounds like it’s something we’d be interested in.”
Marblehead’s solicitor, Jim Barney, said he’s interested in any solution for which the small village can get free legal advice if it’s challenged in court.
“It’d be up to council, because they’d be passing it,” Barney said. “But we’d consider it, sure.”