Less than a year old, the city of Brookhaven opened the doors on its brand-new municipal court—complete with two part-time judges—scarcely a month ago. But the young city has already jumped into a legal battle with a long-standing local business that carries a real risk of costing its taxpayers millions of dollars.
The business in question is the Pink Pony, a popular strip club that’s operated for the past twenty-two years in the corner of an industrial park just off the southern end of Buford Highway, surrounded by car washes, ethnic restaurants, and nondescript office buildings. The Pony, as it’s familiarly known, also happens to be one of the pillars of the adult-entertainment empire built by the late Jack Galardi, who once owned as many as thirty clubs in Atlanta, Miami, and Las Vegas. While the Galardi domain had shrunk to nine clubs when he died last year at 81, the company still has deep pockets and doesn’t stint when it comes to lawyering up against local governments.
Taking a page from Marietta, which successfully drafted a city ordinance to force the glitzy Taj Mahal strip club out of business, Brookhaven’s new measure, signed May 14 by Mayor J. Max Davis II, cites the harmful “secondary effects” caused by adult entertainment, such as increased crime, blight, and DUIs.
Marietta’s court victory, however, came nearly fifteen years ago and has not been replicated since then by another metro Atlanta jurisdiction.
“It’s unlikely that the Marietta ruling would be upheld today,” says attorney Alan Begner, who represents the Pink Pony and who last week filed suit in DeKalb Superior Court on behalf of the club against Brookhaven. Begner, who has made a career defending adult businesses against local governments, points out that the Pony has been down this trail before.
Beginning in 1991, DeKalb County tried unsuccessfully to strip the Pink Pony and eight other existing adult clubs of their liquor licenses. When Vernon Jones became CEO, he quickly moved to settle the outstanding legal dispute; in 2000, the clubs all agreed to pay $100,000 annually for an adult entertainment license in exchange for being “grandfathered” in.
Among the arguments cited in the Pony’s lawsuit is the claim that a newly formed city doesn’t have the power to void the club’s agreement with the county. Another argument holds that, because of filing errors and other procedural goofs, the city did not properly enact the ordinance it now seeks to enforce against the club—and, in fact, may not have even properly ratified its own city charter.
But even if those arguments don’t hold, recent history shows that it’s very difficult to shut down existing adult businesses in Georgia. Fulton County failed spectacularly at such an attempt a few years back and Sandy Springs has been waging the same battle since becoming a city in 2005.
Begner says he made Brookhaven leaders the same offer that DeKalb County accepted: grandfather in the Pony and the club will pay the city $100,000 a year in licensing fees. The city rejected that settlement and now has another week to answer the club’s lawsuit.
Ones irony is that the Pink Pony sits at the very southern edge of the new city, an area so far removed from the original historic Brookhaven community that incorporation critics questioned whether it even belonged within the city limits. Then, as soon as the area was incorporated, presumably because of its tax base, the new city went about trying to shut down one of its more sizable businesses, one which Begner estimates brings in annual revenues of up to $10 million. The Pony is the only strip club in the new city.
Another interesting wrinkle in the case is the involvement of Scott Bergthold, a Chattanooga-based attorney who travels around the country trying to help cities and counties get rid of adult businesses. A law school graduate of Regent University, the Christian school founded by Pat Robertson, Bergthold helped write the Brookhaven ordinance and is advising the city in its dealings with the Pink Pony. His law firm’s website, www.adultbusinesslaw.com, suggests Bergthold’s narrow focus.
Begner says he’s urging Mayor Davis and council members to seek other legal advice—ideally from attorneys who aren’t on a personal crusade to eradicate adult entertainment.
“For the city’s own sake, I want them to talk to lawyers who are neutral,” Begner says.
UPDATE: A statement provided by the city indicates its willingness to go to the mat over its new adult-entertainment ordinance:
“Brookhaven will defend its ordinances, which are designed to protect public safety, health and welfare, and further the city’s goal of ensuring that Brookhaven is an excellent community in which to live.”