No More Dancing? Critics Decry Council Bill 

click to enlarge street27_dancing_300.jpg

Richmonders soon will have no degree of separation from Kevin Bacon, according to some local lawyers. They say the city's on the verge of passing a new ordinance regulating dance halls that could turn Richmond into the kind of repressive, anti-dancing backwater depicted in the 1984 film “Footloose.”

“The way it is worded, this law would apply to parks, libraries, churches — pretty much any place open to the general public where dancing is permitted” attorney Steven Benjamin says. “That means the Richmond Folk Festival, CenterStage … even the Richmond Ballet. The way they define it in this ordinance, any place that permits dancing could be designated a public dance hall.”

In this case, compliance with the law would mean applying for a special permit, hiring extra security or outlawing dancing on the premises.

Retired lawyer and local blogger C. Wayne Taylor says that the ordinance, crafted by 2nd District Councilman Charles Samuels and sponsored by the mayor along with the majority of City Council, does little to address the problem of violence outside of local nightclubs. The ordinance comes in the wake of club-related shootings in Shockoe Bottom.

“There are 44 requirements in the ordinance, but only one pertains to off-site conduct,” Taylor says. “They have written the ordinance so that a dance hall frequently will be in violation of the permit and subject to revocation. They then give a city employee unlimited discretion in deciding whether to ignore a violation or take action.” The law also appears to take jurisdiction over the deliberations of circuit court, which only the General Assembly can do.

There are also numerous loopholes, Benjamin adds. “It doesn't seem to apply to an event that has a benevolent or charitable purpose,” he says. “So [a nightclub] could give a percentage of door admissions to charity, or ask for a canned good, and not have to comply. What an easy dodge.”

Like a recently passed city noise ordinance, also crafted by Samuels, Benjamin says this law will have a chilling effect on free speech in Richmond, and its intended target is clear: “They want to stop young people from assembling. Plain and simple. It is crafted the way it is so that they can close or favor businesses at their whim. And it is so broad that business owners will have to guess at its applicability.”

Details of the pending ordinance came as news to the Richmond Ballet's managing director, Keith Martin. “Dancing is permitted and strongly encouraged here at Richmond Ballet,” he writes in an e-mail. “The only violence I have seen is from dancers trying to get to the water fountain during breaks between classes, and the only shooting going around over here is photography!”

The mayor's office could not answer questions about the proposed ordinance by Style Weekly's deadline, and Samuels did not respond to numerous requests for an interview. The councilman did send out an e-mail stating, without elaboration, that “the Administration and members of Council are working with the public to improve this ordinance.” At press time the ordinance was scheduled for a July 12 council vote.

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Update: Public information manager Michael Wallace, speaking for the Mayor's office, has responded to questions about this new dance hall ordinance:

Style Weekly: The dance hall paper seems to be written so vaguely that it is hard to see how police can enforce it. Also, as it is written, this paper would seem to apply to the Folk Festival, Richmond Ballet, anywhere people congregate and dance.

Wallace: The plain language of the "dance hall" definition seems to infer that we are talking about indoor venues only. The definition of dance halls is taken directly from state statute, which like our ordinance, does not contemplate calculating 10% of the floor space for outdoor venues. As we are reviewing the proposed ordinance with stakeholders, we will investigate whether it is necessary to further clarify that we are referring to facilities only. I would note that the proposed ordinance gives the police very little to directly enforce outside of security requirements. However, police presence is huge in foresee ability of problematic situations and deterring crime before it happens. The paper now puts police in place to act and gives police advance knowledge of big events from a staffing standpoint, traffic congestion, etc.

As the paper is written it would indicate that City Council would exercise power and jurisdiction over the Circuit Court. Please explain why it is written in this manner.

This question has been referred to the City Attorney's Office

As this paper was drawn to address the violence occurring outside of the dance halls, why is it heavily focused on what occurs inside of the dance establishments?

The paper focuses on inside and outside (i.e. Requirement of police outside). More importantly, the paper addresses what Virginia Code allows us to regulate. Notwithstanding additional outdoor issues such as parking will be addressed in the zoning paper to follow.

 

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