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The naked truth – fighting for the facts

In Oregon, obscenity is protected speech. And under state law, strip clubs can operate just about anywhere.

But that's not stopping people from fighting to regain the final say about what goes on in their backyards.

Greg Chaimov, a city councilor for the city of Milwaukie and the attorney representing Stars Cabaret in its fight for a liquor license in Tualatin on the Lake Oswego side of Interstate 5, put it most succinctly during an interview with Pamplin Media Group this week.

'Most often people in a community are particularly animated about an issue when the rules they want their government not to follow are imposed by a larger government that may not share the values of the community,' said Chaimov.

'With the citizens of Tualatin, their gathering for action reflects, I think in part, their not having the final say of what happens in their community.'

In Carlton, the final say for a strip club came in the form of a chain-link fence erected around a small-town bar.

In Springfield, it was the denial of a liquor license.

In Salem, it was a 'yes' from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and a notice to the Salem City Council of its failure to provide legal ground to deny a strip club its liquor license.

In Tualatin, the final word on Stars Cabaret-Bridgeport has yet to be spoken. The OLCC will not give a determination on the license until sometime next year. First a director will decide if the city of Tualatin's recommendation for a denial of a liquor license has legal standing. If it doesn't, the issue will be moved to a hearing before the OLCC as early as February.

But as both sides gear up to defend their legal standings, it's clear that the city of Tualatin and the representatives for Stars understand the law that has brought them to a very public clash.

Taking it personally

Someone described the Round House Bar and Grill in Carlton as similar to the Guatanamo Bay detention centers. In April of this year, businesses surrounding the bar erected their own version of a strip-club deterrent - a chain-link fence which was intended to keep the bar's patrons from using the other businesses' parking lot space.

The result: The bar owner who had sought to add adult entertainment to his business is leaving town. Paul Scanlon went from putting his building up for rent to now trying to sell the facility. The number to the Round House was disconnected when called for a comment.

'We would have picketed. We would have done everything,' said Carlton resident Vicki Meeuwsen about how far she and her neighbors were willing to take their opposition to a strip club in their small town.

Meeuwsen was one of the vocal opponents who spoke during a Carlton City Council meeting in April. A posted notice gave Carlton residents warning of Scanlon's intended plans for his bar.

And as a small town where parents trust that their children are safe walking down the sidewalks and going to the corner stores, Meeuwsen said the strip club just didn't fit the town.

Locally, Jim Beriault, the spokesman for the opposition group CHANGE, said that the group would stick to the rule of law.

'If they do go in, we'll see if there is momentum to take it to a legislative course,' he said. 'They think we have a valid argument as far as zoning laws. It could be a referendum.'

Beriault and members of CHANGE (Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment) do plan on protesting if the strip club is approved, but they see that as more of a freedom of speech action than one that will stop Stars from coming into their community.

Managers at The Little Gym and 24-Hour Fitness, which are both mentioned in the city's recommendation to the OLCC, confirmed that they feel the club would adversely affect their businesses, but neither said they would use any type of social pressure if Stars moved in.

Bob Briede, 24-Hour Fitness manager, did say he would be watching to be sure Stars patrons weren't parking in his lot and would be 'conscientious' about activities that would need to be reported to the police.

'If members are reluctant to recommend us due to the change in the neighborhood after Stars opens, this will have an effect on our business, said Ron Skoletsky, owner of The Little Gym.

In Carlton, Meeuwsen had plans to organize protests and to even video tape patrons as they entered and exited the business - though she admitted they never really discussed what they would have done with the recordings once they were made.

'All I can say is stick to your guns. Do what you possibly can do not to let it happen. Fight for it. Fight using all your avenues,' she said.

Discrimination?

As a city councilor for Milwaukie, Chaimov can see Tualatin's side - angry constituents screaming at elected officials over something they can't control. He admits that in Milwaukie, residents wouldn't be any happier with news of a strip club coming to town.

But the difference between him and the officials of Tualatin, says Chaimov, is recognizing what Stars is legally entitled to.

As an attorney, Chaimov has a reputation for taking on government agencies who he believes aren't playing by the rules.

'Many times someone will want something from government that they're entitled to have, but government won't give it to them,' said Chaimov.

'If I believe that by evaluating the facts and the law, that the government isn't following the rules, then I take the case.'

Chaimov said he was brought in as counsel for Stars shortly after the first Town Hall meeting where Tualatin city councilors vocally shared their opinions against Stars.

After Tualatin's Nov. 24 public hearing for Stars' liquor license, Stars co-owner Randy Kaiser said he felt like the city was making him out to be 'the ogre in the community.'

'It's offensive,' said Kaiser. But is it illegal?

Briede said that as a business 24-Hour Fitness offers a discount to employees of Stars and other businesses.

'We have this arrangement with anybody so it's nondiscriminant,' he said, noting his comments were not on behalf of 24-Hour Fitness.

'I can't speak on behalf of the company at this time,' he said. 'But we had a discounted rate with employees like we do with anyone.'

His concerns are based on safety regarding the types of people who would visit a Stars club, he said.

When asked if he believed the fight against Stars liquor license was based solely on it being a business for adult entertainment, Chaimov said, 'I don't see how you could draw any other conclusion.'

Chaimov says that legal action could be taken against the city of Tualatin based on 'discrimination' that has occurred so far.

In Springfield, Jack Dugger says he feels the same way about having his name dragged through the dirt. In July of this year, Dugger tried to obtain a liquor license for his Shaker's Bar and Grill that he proposed to move to a spot on Main Street and include adult entertainment.

His application was denied. The city was able to prove that the area where he wanted to locate was a 'high crime-rate area' and that his business shouldn't be allowed to move there. The OLCC agreed. Dugger plans to appeal the decision. Talking about the bar as though it's his livelihood, Dugger called the process by which he was denied a license ' a total mockery.'

The denial was based on the area around the establishment and not on Dugger's history. But Dugger said the facility, which remains unopened though he continues to pay for the lease, has always been a bar. He feels the city targeted him because he wanted to introduce adult entertainment.

Six months after the denial, Dugger says, 'I will fight this until I'm broke, or I get satisfaction.'

Hope for a change

The Oregonians Protecting Neighborhoods' Web site still prominently announces the group's intention for a November 2008 constitutional amendment ballot measure.

But as most voters know, it never made it on the ballot.

A call to the number listed on the Web site - which was for former lawmaker Kevin Mannix's office - asking for an update on the group's efforts to amend the state's Constitution concerning strip clubs was not returned by press time.

Similar initiatives failed in the past, and many people believe Oregonians would have voted it down again anyway.

The last crusade for regulating where strip clubs can operate started in late 2006 after the OLCC granted a liquor license for the Presley's Playhouse Cabaret in Salem.

Similar to Tualatin's situation, the Salem City Council had asked for a liquor license denial on the grounds of the facility being close to a children-oriented recreational facility and that the applicant was not of good repute and moral character.

The OLCC disagreed with the Salem council's findings and said the city didn't provide any 'legal reason' why the license should be denied.

Two years later, Tualatin finds itself in a similar situation.

Stars representatives are reportedly waiting to finalize a lease for the space at 17939 S.W. McEwan Road based on whether the business receives a liquor license.

So it's plausible that if the city is successful at stopping the liquor license, it will stop Stars from moving to Tualatin. But ultimately, the OLCC has to decide the legal standing of the city's findings.

In the meantime, Tualatin leaders are looking to make a change.

On Friday, Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden will attend a League of Oregon Cities board meeting and ask for help with lobbying efforts and technical assistance on two fronts - legislative support for the referral of a constitutional amendment and making changes to the Oregon revised statute to give OLCC greater flexibility in denying liquor licenses.

During a phone interview Tuesday, Ogden mentioned the past failed attempts to amend the state constitution.

'On the surface, maybe Oregonians don't want to give up protections as individuals,' said Ogden. 'But maybe obscenity shouldn't be a protected speech for strictly commercial purposes. We want to pursue that.'

Ogden said that phrasing at least could open the door to allow cities to regulate strip clubs like they would any other business.

Ogden said Tualatin's leaders are simply looking for some support from cities statewide. But even if the group could get legislation moving, Ogden doubted it would come in time to help Tualatin.

'It's still to be seen if we would be successful in time,' he said.

- Rebecca Mayer contributed to this story.