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How clubs were punished: Warn, warn again

19 August 2009

By Amanda Finnegan, Las Vegas Sun
LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- County officials said Tuesday that their effort to clean up the nightclub industry is kicking off with a warning letter and workshops to try to help nightclubs comply with the rules.

In other words, at least initially, the county's answer to what it said is a major problem is more of the same — yet another warning and more workshops.

But for years the county business licensing department has had another tool available to try to force compliance but has not used it — its authority to issue citations.

Many nightclub operators have long openly bent, if not broken, the same regulations the county cited on its list of reasons for shutting down two clubs at Planet Hollywood last month, and yet the toughest action against them has been written warnings to knock it off.

The county code says business license holders must "maintain and conduct all activities upon the premises in a decent, orderly and respectful manner and shall not knowingly permit within or upon the licensed premises any lewd activity, nudity or topless activity," among other things.

The problem is "lewd" is Las Vegas' middle name, and the valley's sexually charged nightclubs are known for patrons being on their worst behavior. Tourists shell out hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars for a taste of the after-hours scene and figure they're paying for the privilege of getting naughtier than normal. It's impossible for a nightclub's staff to keep all patrons under control every second. The issue is how the club handles the patrons they do see getting out of control and whether the club encourages that behavior.

Nightclub operators know that the wilder their clubs are, the more people they are likely to draw, so some have been turning a blind eye to some of their customers' antics.

Some have advertised lingerie balls, parties hosted by porn stars and girl-on-girl kissing contests. With one wrong move or intentional wardrobe malfunction, events like these can violate county code.

Krave nightclub, in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, advertises events such as "So You Think You Can Strip?" — a weekly amateur stripping contest with a $1,000 prize. (Krave was not one of the shuttered Planet Hollywood venues.)

Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa said the county considers strip contests like Krave's to be lewd behavior.

"We will ensure that this business understands what is allowed by county code," Pappa said.

It's not as if the club shouldn't know, though. In June 2008, the county served Krave a notice of violation, noting lewd behavior in the club's weekly wet boxer shorts contests. A spokeswoman for Krave said the club has since discontinued the contest.

If the county wanted to, it could have been issuing citations left and right for years. Instead, county business licensing staff has handed out at least 16 "notices of violation" in the past two years to 23 of the most popular clubs in town — all warnings, no citations.

Aside from Planet Hollywood's Prive, three other major clubs in the night-life scene were given warnings about repeat violations.

A violation of the county ordinance is a misdemeanor, so a citation can result in a fine of up to $1,000 — about the same amount Krave has been handing out on a weekly basis for a best strip routine contest.

The Light Group's Jet nightclub, inside the Mirage, was given violation notices for allowing topless activity inside the club in December 2007, April 2008 and April 2009.

Rain Nightclub in the Palms was issued notices of violation for topless activity and lewd behavior in February and May 2007.

Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin said the county's policy is, generally, to first issue notices of violation to give businesses an opportunity to straighten themselves out. A citation wouldn't normally be issued unless the county observes a similar violation soon after the warning was given, Kulin said.

No citation was issued to Jet or Rain.

Kulin said the circumstances of each violation factored into decisions to issue only warnings. For example, one of the violations at Jet involved at least one woman wearing pasties and body paint. "For a time during the past two years body paint increased in popularity. It seemed that our position that body paint is still nudity was not fully understood by many businesses. So, the (notices of violation) were the proper method to inform the businesses and record their noncompliance," Kulin said.

The warnings "have been a successful tool for notifying businesses of violations and securing compliance with code," he added. "While every situation is unique, we generally see businesses comply after receiving a notice of violation."

And, after issuing the warnings, the county follows up "with unannounced visits by our agents to make sure the problematic activity is no longer occurring," Kulin said. "Prive and The Living Room were certainly exceptions and that is why additional steps were taken and more serious action was taken."

In her explanation to county commissioners regarding what her department is doing to try to prevent another expensive problem like those at the two Planet Hollywood clubs, Jacqueline Holloway, the county's director of business licensing, said Tuesday, "We're trying to make long-term changes in the nightclub industry as a whole."

The county will soon provide nightclub operators and staff with workshops to try to help them comply with the rules, she said, acknowledging that "Gaming Control conducted workshops in the past. We have conducted workshops in the past. Metro has conducted workshops in the past."

She also said she is sending out a yet another "notice" to the industry outlining key conditions and key expectations. After that letter goes out, if inspectors find "blatant disregard for code, we will move toward a civil penalty," she said.

A change in state law, effective July 1, gave the county the authority to levy fines outside of the citation and court system.

Whether "moving toward" a civil penalty will mean handing out more warnings remains to be seen, though.

Prive, after all, had not been given a citation. It had instead received two warnings for stalling agents during compliance inspections and one for allowing topless and lewd activity.

The same restriction on lewd behavior and nudity also has always applied to the pool parties that became popular — and celebrated for their lasciviousness — in recent summers. It's the club scene in the sunshine — with a lot more exposed skin.

When, in 2002, an exception to the county code was added to allow resorts to provide guests a designated area for topless sunbathing, that exception came with numerous restrictions. Such pools must be out of view of patrons in other pools, and minors are prohibited.

And then there is this restriction, which seems to be ignored by some pool operators and the county: Pools "cannot be used for any special events, contests or parties while topless sunbathing is taking place."

The topless pool scene, of course, has grown to include DJs, dancing and celebrity appearances. Some pools are operated by the same people who run nightclubs, people who thrive on pushing the boundaries.

In early April the county's business licensing department sent a rules reminder letter to all hotel licensees that operate topless pools.

But some topless pools continued to advertise events that appear to be in violation of the code.

Bare, the topless pool at the Mirage operated by the Light Group, advertised the Polka Dot Bikini Party on July 16, Platinum Group's Jay Rebholz's birthday on July 9 and the Mirage 20th Anniversary Celebration with Marissa Miller on April 22, all hosted during the pool's regular hours.

When asked about those events and others, Pappa said the county would give the hotels another reminder about the county code.

"The topless area cannot be used for special events, contests or parties while topless sunbathing is taking place. This applies for employees, contractors, patrons and everyone else," Pappa said. Bare had received at least a couple of reminders in the form of two notices of violation for "topless activity not related to topless sunbathing" in August 2007 and again in April 2008. But after two warnings for the same type of violation in less than a year, Bare never received a citation.

The now-defunct Sapphire Pool, which the Rio voluntarily shut down July 25 after Metro Police arrested 11 people on drug or prostitution charges, had openly violated the county's code long before last month.

Back in May, the pool hosted a bikini top contest during Memorial Day weekend. But as is the case with the many other instances in which parties and other advertised activities at Strip properties violated the county code, no citations or notices of violation were written for the Sapphire Pool's parties.

In the case of the topless pools, the county may soon be taking a second look at its ordinance. Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine said the ordinance might need to be changed.

"Things have really changed in the activities that go on at the resort pools. The code is always a reflection of what is going on at the time when it's written," Valentine told Sun columnist Jon Ralston during a July 29 interview on "Face to Face." "Maybe it's time to revisit the code and see, does it now address the current type of activities?"

Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.


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