Last call at nightlife venues in Brookhaven remains at 2 a.m. despite a plea from the Pink Pony to extend pouring hours until a federal lawsuit challenging the city’s alcohol ordinance is decided.

Pink Pony owner Dennis Williams asked the Brookhaven City Council at its Aug. 28 meeting to extend hours to 3 a.m. until a federal lawsuit challenging the alcohol ordinance is decided. (Dyana Bagby)

The mayor and City Council voted Aug. 28 to tweak the alcohol ordinance in minor ways. One amendment approved immediately disbands the Alcohol Board and replaces it with a single “hearing officer” to be appointed by the mayor. The hearing officer will hear and decide challenges to alcohol license suspensions or denials.

Another amendment now requires an off-duty police officer to be on duty at nightlife venues an hour past closing time, from 2:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m.

After several minutes of confusion and a 20-minute closed-door executive session, the council also voted to delay enforcement of the ordinance that prohibits sexually oriented businesses from selling alcohol until Dec. 31, 2020.

Currently the Pink Pony is the only such business in the city doing so. The council raised some concerns during a work session that new strip clubs could start popping up in the city if the enforcement of this subsection was delayed. Mayor John Ernst said after the vote he expected the current code would keep out any other strip clubs.

Pink Pony owner Dennis Williams made a special appeal to the council during public comment to delay last call until 3 a.m. rather than 2 a.m. The new last call went into effect in April as part of an overhaul of the entire alcohol ordinance approved in January.

The ordinance did require venues with a DJ, stage of dance floor to be designated “entertainment venues” and pay $100,000 for an alcohol license. City officials say the large fees are needed to pay for police services due to high calls at many of the nightlife venues, especially those on and near Buford Highway. This $100,000 fee was also eliminated at the Aug. 28 meeting.

“My hours are taking a beating … and we’re having some financial hardship on our staff and employees,” Williams said of the earlier closing time.

Williams further blamed “outsiders” – the nightlife venues suing the city – for “muddying the waters.”

“Some outsiders won [a preliminary injunction] and the Pony is getting punished,” Williams said.

Williams’ request at the Aug. 28 meeting follows a federal judge’s July ruling to allow a civil rights lawsuit filed by Josephine, XS Restaurant & Lounge and Medusa Restaurant & Lounge to move forward. The three venues claim the city is discriminating against the black-owned clubs. Their argument in part states the new ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause because it allowed the white-owned Pink Pony to stay open until 4 a.m. seven days a week.

After that ruling, however, the city decided it would enforce its 2 a.m. last call at the Pink Pony just like other clubs to come into compliance with the judge’s decision and make sure all clubs were being treated the same. The strip club can now only sell alcohol until midnight on Sundays as well.

The Pink Pony was at first considered exempt from the new alcohol ordinance because of a settlement agreement it reached with the city in 2014. The agreement came after several contentious court battles when the city tried to permanently shut the club down and prohibit sexually oriented business from locating in the city.

Under the terms of that exit agreement, which expires Dec. 31, 2020, the Pink Pony has paid the city $225,000 annually and was able to stay open until 4 a.m. and sell alcohol on Sundays.

The strip club is expected to close up shop at the end of 2020 as part of its exit agreement. The club can request to stay open, but would then be required to follow the alcohol ordinance that in 2020 will begin banning sexually oriented business from selling alcohol.

Pink Pony attorney Aubrey Villines first made the request for later hours at the Aug. 14 meeting. At the Aug. 28 meeting, he also spoke and said the club “was losing a lot of money.”

“There is no simple solution, only intelligent choices,” Villines said.

Confusion over what the council was voting on led to some several moments of silence when it appeared the council was going to approve the ordinance with the provision to prohibit the sale of alcohol by a sexually oriented business. Doing so would have immediately banned all alcohol sales at the Pink Pony and essentially put it out of business overnight.

City Manager Christian Sigman jumped in and told the council it needed to formally address that subsection of the alcohol code that refers to sexually oriented businesses so the city could address the recent court ruling saying the city was treating clubs differently.

That led to a closed-door 20-minute executive session to discuss legal matters. When the council emerged, a vote was taken that deletes the subsection as well as approving the hearing officer and off-duty police hours provisions. Councilmember Linley Jones cast the lone “no” vote but explained she did not want to see any Brookhaven business shut down with no notice.

Ernst said following the vote that the federal judge in his recent ruling force the city’s hand to delete this specific subsection in the alcohol code.

“We need to comply with the law and correct all areas,” he said. “I very much would not like to see the proliferation of any sexually oriented businesses in the city … and this law I believe would still contain those protections.

“But we have to treat everyone equally … and that comes with the choices we have to make in the future,” Ernst added.

Correction: The story has been updated to correct that the Pink Pony’s exit agreement with the city expires Dec. 31, 2020, and to clarify the enforcement of the ordinance that prohibits sexually oriented businesses from selling alcohol will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021. The story also notes that the $100,000 fee charged to certain nightlife venues has been eliminated.

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