Caught between a thong and the U.S. Constitution, Asheville City Council members voted unanimously on June 8 to impose more stringent restrictions on topless bars — but learned that they can’t do much about performer Ukiah Morrison strolling downtown streets clad only in a skimpy G-string.
“How is it that we can regulate nonperformers [in topless bars] to cover their buttocks, when we can’t [do the same] for someone walking down the street?” asked Mayor Leni Sitnick.
City Attorney Bob Oast reminded Sitnick and other Council members that they can impose regulations on sexually oriented businesses — but not on personal conduct. Besides, continued Oast, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled last year that the buttocks are not considered “private parts” (as are the genital and anal regions) and, thus, are not subject to laws against indecent exposure.
But Council can require performers at sexually oriented businesses to keep their genital areas covered at all times, and nonperformers (such as waiters and waitresses) to cover their buttocks and privates.
Council member Earl Cobb said he wanted to do more. “I would like to see an ordinance to outlaw topless or bottomless men or women,” he suggested.
“Well, at home or in the shower [is OK],” Sitnick joked.
Oast said that he would investigate whether Council could prohibit buttock exposure on city property, such as city parks. But he cautioned Council against further clothing restrictions, which could violate the constitutional right to freedom of expression.
Oast recommended that Council adopt the proposed stricter regulations on topless bars and other sexually oriented businesses, including the clothing restrictions already mentioned. In addition, he asked Council to extend a moratorium on the construction of new “SOBs” or the expansion of existing ones, to give the Planning and Zoning Commission time to review a proposed amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance that would make such businesses a conditional use. That would mean that any proposed new SOB would have to be approved by City Council.
On two motions by Council member Tommy Sellers — one to adopt the stricter regulations (seconded by Cobb), and the other to extend the moratorium (seconded by O.T. Tomes) — Council voted unanimously to approve Oast’s recommendations.
Several women spoke out against sexually oriented businesses, calling them “evil” and “moral pollution.” “I’d like to see them all closed down,” declared Mary Ray, claiming that SOBs destroy families.
A parking-lot stalemate
Citing “irreconcilable differences” on June 8, City Attorney Bob Oast confessed that he hadn’t been able to come up with a regulation governing private-parking-lot signs that would satisfy everyone involved.
At issue was how to make such signs (which warn motorists that their cars may be towed) more consistent, in Asheville’s central business district. Mayor Sitnick said she’s heard complaints that existing signs quote one rate, but folks who’ve been towed find they must pay more in order to retrieve their cars from “a towing company that will go unnamed.”
“You mean Sonny’s?” said Vice Mayor Ed Hay, who has firsthand experience with “nonconsensual towing.”
Council member Barbara Field also noted that some of these signs aren’t posted where they can easily be seen.
But Oast said that he’d been unable to reconcile the need to address placement and wording issues with the desire to avoid offending private-lot owners who don’t wish to tow. His proposed ordinance would simply mandate that all private lots be posted, and that lot owners who don’t comply could be fined.
Hay — whose law firm owns a lot but doesn’t wish to post it or have after-hours parkers towed — said Oast’s proposal would place nearly all private downtown parking lots in violation.
As for problems with a specific company or with rates charged, the city can’t regulate towing companies, because they fall under federal guidelines for interstate commerce, Oast reminded Council.
Frustrated by the legalities, Council member Chuck Cloninger said the problem should be simple: “If you’re going to tow somebody, you’ve got to put a sign up.”
Oast responded that, if Council memers didn’t wish to pass the ordinance, he would get the word out to merchants and private-lot owners to make their signs more consistent. Council members consented to that, taking no vote on the proposed ordinance.
Sellers appointed to Water Authority
Despite opposition from environmental advocates, Asheville City Council members chose to appoint one of their own to fill a vacancy on the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson: Tommy Sellers.
Citizens for Safe Drinking Water Chair Hazel Fobes said she has nothing against Sellers, but is concerned that Council hadn’t considered a list of highly qualified citizens who had expressed an interest in the post. “Just putting anybody on the Water Authority is wrong! … The Water Authority needs people on it who have expertise in water quality,” proclaimed Fobes, citing the local water system’s long-standing problems with aging, leaky lines.
League of Women Voters representative Abby Gage, a member of the Western North Carolina Alliance, got more personal, asking Sellers, “What kind of expertise do you … bring to this board?”
“I don’t think I need to answer that,” Sellers replied, noting that the city has nearly 60 boards and commissions, with Council members serving on all of them.
Gage countered that Council should appoint one of its members to serve in an advisory capacity only, and name an engineer, scientist or citizen with water-quality expertise to the voting position.
West Asheville resident June Lamb asked when Sellers’ Council term (and, potentially, his Authority term) expires.
Sellers said his Council term expires on the first Tuesday in December (unless he’s re-elected in November). He added that Council members “are all on boards and commissions, and we’re not experts.” Sellers said he serves in some capacity or other on 16 boards.
“Sixteen too many!” exclaimed Lamb, as she made her way back to her seat.
“We don’t have to resort to that,” chided Mayor Sitnick.
Fobes commented that she didn’t like the attitude in Council chambers that evening (the preceding debate over Honda Hoot parking fees had gotten very testy, and the Water Authority discussion, she felt, was leaning that way). She confessed to being tired, it being close to 9 p.m. (the meeting had started at 5 p.m.).
Vice Mayor Hay pointed out that Council has, historically, had a member serve on the Authority, and that this was its first opportunity — since the appointment of former member Charles Worley — to choose another member. (Worley serves as chair of the Authority; his term expires this September, but he is eligible for reappointment.)
Council member Field noted that boards set policy, relying on city staff to provide the expertise. She added that it’s good to have balanced representation on all boards: men, women, African-Americans, Hispanics (“when we can find them”), and East/West/South/North/Central Asheville residents. Field insisted that Sellers is qualified to serve on the Authority, which oversees a $20 million budget, because he is honorable and has run his own business. “Whether he is friends with Mr. Worley or not will have no effect on how he votes,” she said.
Council member Cobb observed that it’s crucial for Council to have someone represent the city’s interest on the regional board.
Fobes reiterated that she had said nothing against Sellers, merely wishing to emphasize that Council should consider the full list of candidates. When Sellers hushed her, Fobes rose and said she was leaving. Calling out “goodbye!” several times, she left Chambers.
Sitnick noted that Council had reviewed the list.
On a motion by Hay, seconded by Cobb, Council voted unanimously to appoint Sellers.