Blowing it

Did the city of Dallas deliberately blow a permit hearing last month and let the much-dissed Baby Dolls topless club stay open another year at Bachman Lake?

Neighborhood opponents of strip clubs, who believed the city had a slam-dunk case against granting the permit, are convinced that's what happened. "The way they blew it, it was so artful it had to be intentional," says Tim Dickey, vice president of the Bachman/Northwest Highway Community Association. "I think the big boys, the money boys, want to keep these clubs right where they are for the good of the city. Nobody wants to downgrade other neighborhoods, and every horny conventioneer in America knows how to get to Baby Dolls."

As interesting as that sounds--another conspiracy theory for Dallas--a review of the record and interviews of key players draw a more mundane picture. It seems bureaucratic bungling, miscommunications, and some sharp lawyering on the club's side had more to do with Baby Dolls' win than did any grand plan.

At issue on May 25 was something called a sexually oriented business license. Police Chief Terrell Bolton had refused to grant Baby Dolls a license because it violated a city ordinance designed to disperse such clubs and keep them from locating within 1,000 feet of parks, homes, and one another. U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer ruled last month that the city's ordinance is constitutional because it seeks to regulate land use, not freedom of expression.

The club then took its case before a three-member panel of the Dallas License and Permit Appeals Board, which has the power to overturn the chief if certain conditions are met.

Various missteps at the city attorney's office assured that Baby Dolls' attorney Charles Quaid would not meet his match at the hearing.

Debra Blomgren, an assistant city attorney who had been hired only five weeks before the hearing, was assigned the case. But when Linda Neel, head of the Bachman neighborhood group, phoned the city attorney's office, she was misinformed that another attorney was handling the case.

Blomgren says nobody in her office gave her any information about past hearings or neighborhood contacts--and she had no idea that Quaid, the strip club's lawyer, would be armed with statements from depositions gathered over years of strip-club litigation. During the permit hearing, Quaid read a quote from former City Planning Director Cheryl Peterman in which she said she knew of no city studies setting out the ill effects of strip bars on neighborhoods. "That was very damaging," Blomgren says.

Blomgren says that she was handed the case about a week before the hearing and that she didn't hear from Neel until the night before she was to appear before the board. The two had agreed to meet 30 minutes before the hearing, but Neel showed up 30 minutes later, so they had virtually no time to coordinate, Blomgren says.

For the bar to prevail at the hearing, it had to prove that it would not downgrade property values, ruin the quality of life in the immediate area, increase crime, encourage urban blight, or interfere with efforts at urban renewal. Even though Baby Dolls is within a few hundred feet of another club and within a thousand feet of a park and a residential area, it could continue to operate if it made that case.

Quaid made an uncontested argument that property values in the area were increasing--based on sales and values assessed by county authorities--even though four topless clubs are presently clustered there. He brought evidence that the number of police calls had fallen from 180 two years ago to just 30 in the past year.

The drop, Dallas Police Detective Paul Ronyak testified, occurred because the police backed off enforcement during the latter period. Once enforcement picked up again, in late February, eight dancers at Baby Dolls were arrested and charged with public lewdness for performing lap dances on undercover officers.

As strong a case as that might have been that the club was hardly a crime-free zone, two out of the three appointed members of the licensing panel bought the club's argument that crime was down. Michael Munsterman, a board member who resigned after the decision, argued during taped deliberations that the lap dance violations weren't a problem because they occurred inside the club and therefore had no effect on the neighborhood.

"How am I supposed to counter that kind of thinking?" Blomgren asks.

She claims another city attorney who was advising the board during its deliberations gave it bad advice. One of the criteria used to judge the club's impact was worded to ask whether "the location of an additional sexually oriented business in the area" would run counter to programs of neighborhood conservation or renewal. Blomgren had brought into evidence a city study that specifically identified the concentration of clubs as a drag on the area.

But Munsterman, in the tape recording on the deliberations, could be heard seizing on the word "additional," and he asked Kenyatta Braggs, the assistant city attorney assigned to the panel, whether this issue applied to Baby Dolls because it already was in existence. Braggs said it was not an additional club, so the matter was moot.

According to Blomgren, that's hardly the case. Baby Dolls under the law has been operating as an adult cabaret rather than a sexually oriented business--a distinction that has to do with whether dancers must wear pasties. So it would be an additional sexually oriented business were it to be licensed. Braggs declined to comment.

Dallas City Council member Donna Blumer, who reviewed a tape recording of the hearing, says an "out-and-out conspiracy is hard to believe...I think it was mostly a lack of experience on the part of the attorney handling the case."

Dickey say the city wins such hearings most of the time because the burden of proof is on the clubs. The city attorney handling the case usually instructs the panel that it can deny the appeal on the slightest bit of evidence against the club, such as the lewdness arrests, he says.

Now, the city will be going back to court--suing its own appeal board--to try to reverse the decision, city officials announced last week.

While the loss at the May hearing appears to have been a group effort, only one person has been made to pay.

Blomgren says her superiors supported her in the days after the hearing, and she was taking steps to meet with neighborhood leaders and hammer out a better approach for future hearings.

Then, she says, she was suddenly pulled off all her cases last week with no explanation and told she could only work as a legal researcher for other attorneys. "They took an attorney with 12 years experience, and they've got me fetching coffee," says Blomgren.

She says she worked high-profile, controversial cases in her past job with the state child welfare office in Illinois. "I've always been backed up before, but this time I got screwed," she says. "I'm the lamb led to the slaughter."

Rather than face what seemed to be a demotion, she resigned. What hurt most, she says, is that her boss, City Attorney Madeleine Johnson, would not give her an explanation. Johnson did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

"I worked before in Chicago, and you hear they have tough politics," she says. "Chicago is nothing compared to Dallas."

Blumer says she doesn't know why Blomgren's short career with the city ended over the Baby Dolls hearing. But she agreed about the general atmosphere at Dallas City Hall. "It's a ruthless place," Blumer says. "I'll show you all my bruises."

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec