An ordinance that would have forced “nuisance” bars in New Orleans to provide live-streamed video to police and would have allowed them to be shut down due to complaints from as much as a half-mile away will be withdrawn and watered down before it comes up for a vote, Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer’s office said Wednesday.
This is the second time in less than a year that the controversial ideas have been scrapped before they even made it to a council vote.
The ordinance, first proposed by Palmer and Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen in late December, will be formally withdrawn next week, said Palmer's chief of staff, Andrew Sullivan. That will set the stage for a new ordinance, the broad outlines of which Palmer plans to discuss at a meeting Thursday morning, Sullivan said.
The plan is to come up with a package of regulations that take “as many viewpoints as we possibly can into account,” Sullivan said.
“I don’t think we can guarantee that everything in there is going to be amenable to everyone,” he said. “I think that’s the point of compromise: Everybody has to give a little.”
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In fact, some groups are already saying the broad strokes of Palmer’s new plan do not go far enough toward addressing concerns about privacy and would still give regulators too much power to shut down bars.
While acknowledging that some bars do create a nuisance and fail to properly follow city regulations or pay their taxes — the main problems the ordinance aims to address — Music and Culture Coalition Executive Director Ethan Ellestad said Wednesday after meeting with Palmer’s staff that there could still be unintended consequences from the framework being proposed.
“Are we creating systems to allow people to make things right, or are we just cracking down to reduce the number of alcohol outlets in the city?” Ellestad asked.
The current debate had its origins in a public safety plan former Mayor Mitch Landrieu rolled out in response to a 2016 shooting on Bourbon Street. In addition to launching the city’s network of surveillance cameras, that plan called for changes in how bars are regulated.
Eventually, those proposals made their way to the council in an ordinance that would have required all bars to install interior and exterior cameras that fed live video into the city’s surveillance system. The proposal also would have allowed bars to be shut down if the city received five complaints from residents as far as a half-mile away.
That drew criticism from those who said it would infringe on the privacy of bar patrons and that the complaint procedure could be abused to shut down businesses that were not a problem.
Those proposals also came amid other moves that raised concerns about the "sanitization" of New Orleans’ famously permissive culture, including a crackdown on French Quarter strip clubs.
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Then-Councilwoman Stacy Head, who introduced the ordinance for the administration, eventually stripped out many of the controversial provisions, leaving a measure that only changed the city department responsible for licensing establishments that serve alcohol.
The soon-to-be-withdrawn bill mirrored many of those same provisions.
The new proposal from Palmer’s office would still allow businesses that serve alcohol to be punished by being forced to put up cameras. But those cameras would be only on the exterior of the building and would not be tied into the city's centralized live surveillance system, Sullivan said. Instead, businesses would be required to keep at least 30 days of video, which the Police Department would need a subpoena or warrant to access, he said.
The provision about complaints has also been scaled down dramatically. Instead of complaints from within a half-mile radius being enough to trigger a hearing, the new version will require 10 residents within a block radius to call for sanctions on an establishment, Sullivan said. That would then generate a complaint to the City Attorney’s Office, which could push for a hearing to determine whether the establishment’s license should be revoked.
The new ordinance will also call for harsher penalties for those found to be violating city regulations or failing to pay taxes and will allow for the immediate suspension of a license if a business “directly and imminently” endangers the community.
Sullivan said the goal will be to balance the city’s need to enforce its regulations, the concerns of neighbors who live near problem establishments and the rights of those who are following the rules. The final version of the regulations is still to be hashed out.
Cole Newton, owner of the Mid-City bar Twelve Mile Limit and a vocal critic of the first version of the ordinance, said many of the proposed changes seem like steps in the right direction but that the devil will be in the details of the final version.
“There’s a way to create a safer and healthier New Orleans that doesn’t do away with the things we love about New Orleans,” he said.
Law enforcement made no arrests for human trafficking in Bourbon Street strip clubs. But the grip is tightening on the street, and dancers are prepared for a fight.