When Augusta’s Deputy Planning Director Rob Sherman recently received an application from local resident, Sharon Bush Ellison, for a license to become an exotic dancer, he immediately noticed an essential item was missing from her paperwork.
Ellison had failed to list a place of employment for what is called her “bar card” application, Sherman said.
“If you are going to be a dancer or stripper down at one of the adult entertainment establishments, and there are three on Broad Street, you are supposed to get a bar card,” Sherman explained. “When she first came in, what she wanted to do was just get a bar card so that she could work private parties, basically, go to people’s houses and be a stripper. And I told her, ‘Well, you can’t do that.’”
In order to legally work as an exotic dancer in Augusta, applicants are required to be licensed to dance at one of the permitted adult entertainment establishments in downtown, such as the Discotheque Lounge, Fantasy’s Showgirls or Vegas Show Girls.
Those three downtown strip clubs are the only such establishments in Augusta primarily because of an alcohol ordinance that was adopted almost two decades ago.
In 1997, the Augusta Commission adopted an ordinance that resembled other regulations approved across Georgia that allowed such adult establishments to have either nude dancing or serve alcohol, but would not allow both under the same roof.
However, clubs such as the Discotheque Lounge were grandfathered in by the Augusta Commission and, therefore, they are allowed to continue to hold their liquor licenses under the current ownership.
The liquor licenses can be renewed every year; however, once the owner either sells the business or passes away, the existing strip club will no longer be grandfathered in under the original ordinance.
The approval of the 1997 ordinance has helped prevent such adult entertainment establishments from popping up all over the country.
But if exotic dancers were allowed to receive independent licenses and perform in private residences, the city would be unable to properly monitor their activities, Sherman explained.
“It would lead to a lot of problems if you think it through,” Sherman said. “Let’s say you are sitting at home and you call a stripper to come to your house. Well, who is going to protect you? Who is going to protect the stripper? When the stripper is done, is she just going to walk out? Anything could happen, so it just doesn’t work.”
While Sherman insists Ellison may simply want to dance at private parties, he believes loosening the restrictions for exotic dancers across Richmond County could cause serious consequences down the road.
“It’s kind of like saying prostitution is legal, come get a business license and you can go work,” Sherman said. “It’s a slippery slope.”
In response to the city’s decision to deny her application, Ellison has filed an appeal with the Augusta Commission regarding her request for, what she is calling, an “adult entertainment independent contractor license.”
However, Ellison’s appeal was scheduled to be discussed by the mayor and the commission on Aug. 16, but she was not present at the meeting. Instead, she submitted a request for a delay of her appeal. As a result, commissioners agreed to delay the appeal until their meeting on Sept. 6.
But a review of the paperwork that Ellison filed for an appeal has also raised a few questions.
Her request for an appeal implies she may have already decided to begin working as an “adult entertainment independent contractor” until the issue is resolved.
Her appeal states, “Sharon Bush Ellison will begin working as of this 7th day of August 2016, as an Adult Entertainment Contractor and comply with all requirements of Augusta Code Title 6-l-10 (c) as may be applicable to Independent Contractors.”
The only problem is, if she is currently working as an “independent contractor” at a private residence, she is clearly not following the city code, Sherman stated.
“She is appealing to be an independent contractor is what she says,” Sherman said. “Now, there is a section in the adult entertainment ordinance that says you can only have a bar card issued at a permitted establishment, which are the three bars downtown. But it also says you will be treated as an employee, even if you are an independent contractor.”
However, that doesn’t mean that a person can apply to be an “independent contractor” and work outside one of the permitted adult entertainment establishments, Sherman explained.
“What the means is, you are either a W-2 employee or an independent contractor,” he said. “By saying that, the ordinance is stating that the business is responsible for your actions.”
But Sherman said Ellison is trying to twist that language to mean she can dance independently from one of the licensed downtown strip clubs.
“She only reads bits and pieces of the ordinance,” he said. “She wants to say that that means that she can apply to be an independent contractor and have a bar card and work wherever she wants. No, it doesn’t really say that. So that’s where we are it. She is not reading the entire ordinance. She only reads what she wants it to say.”
When contacted by the Metro Spirit, Ellison said she is anxious to tell her side of the story, but needs a little more time.
“I would want to speak to you about this,” Ellison said by phone. “I am looking forward to presenting the answers to your questions.”
While Ellison may not be prepared to discuss her appeal, many Augusta commissioners have a lot to say about her request to become a licensed “freelance” exotic dancer.
“I can’t really form an opinion or know how to vote unless I have a demonstration of what she is going to do. Seeing it is worth 1,000 words,” Augusta Commissioner Grady Smith jokingly said. “I have to see what I’m voting on.”
But in all seriousness, Smith said Ellison hasn’t given the city enough details to adequately consider what she is requesting.
“I will listen to anything, but we have to think about what’s best for our community, the city’s image, the youth and senior citizens,” Smith said. “How is this going to affect us in the future? How many more people are going to come forward and want to be an independent contractor where they can go to people’s houses, offices or whatever and strip? The next thing you know, guess what you got? You might as well be the Las Vegas cowboy ranch.”
At this point, Smith said there are too many questions and not enough answers regarding Ellison’s appeal.
“All I’ve heard is she was scheduled to come down to the commission meetings a couple of times, but hasn’t shown up,” Smith said. “I am not forming any opinion yet, but, right now, I want to do what is best for this community and I have a lot of questions. Like, what hours is she going to be dancing and prancing around? I mean, we have got to know a lot more about it because, if we approve her, what kinds of doors does that open for the future?”
Not only does Smith want to hear from the city’s license and inspection department, but he also wants an opinion from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
Sherman said the sheriff’s office also denied Ellison’s request.
“When we got her to fill out the bar card application, she didn’t put the business location, so the sheriff’s department denied it and then we also denied it for that reason,” Sherman said, adding that the application is sent to the sheriff’s office to conduct a background check in order to be approved for such a license.
Smith believes the city must be extremely careful when considering such a request.
“What if she hires other girls to sub under her license? What dangers are there if they go to a residence or a private building or something like that to do a little dancing?” Smith asked. “So you have a safety issue there. Then, you have got to find out what kind of insurance is she going to be forced to carry. And most businesses now have to carry some kind of bond. So, this isn’t just about this one individual and one application. It’s a lot more complicated than this one request.”
But Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan doesn’t want to automatically shut the door on Ellison’s request to become an independent contractor in her chosen profession.
Hasan said her request has started a conversation about a topic he knew very little about prior to her application.
“I didn’t know a person needed an adult entertainment license that specifically lists a dancing adult establishment,” Hasan said. “So, the first thing is, I never knew they would have their own personal licenses in order to practice their profession and that it had to be tied to a business. So this is the first time it was brought to my attention.”
Hasan said he has been following the commission meetings since 2006, even prior to becoming a commissioner, and he has never seen this topic publicly addressed.
“This is the first time that I know of that a person is attempting to get their own individual license,” Hasan said. “So, it’s a first for me. I have never had or seen that type of request before.”
Therefore, Hasan said Ellison’s request should not be immediately dismissed.
“On the face of it, right now, I haven’t seen any details surrounding it,” Hasan said. “But it could make sense, if you kind of flush out her rational for why she thinks this is a legitimate business, in the sense that she doesn’t have to be tied to an establishment.”
If it is a legitimate business, Hasan said she may have some very valid reasons why she wants to work independently from the downtown strip clubs.
“Sometimes, the way the system is set up, it does kind of shut people out,” he said. “If that is the case, we have to kind of look at it and make a judgment call. Historically, maybe it has been tied to an establishment, but the question becomes, does it have to be, especially based on the nature of what she is asking? And right now, I don’t know what she is asking.”
However, Hasan said he does appreciate the fact that Ellison is requesting a legitimate license instead of trying to go around the system.
“We see bachelors having their bachelor parties and we see women jumping out of the cake. We see all of these kinds of events doing that sort of stuff, so what is the difference at the end of the day?” Hasan said. “When I think about it, when people are getting married, whether it is male or female, their friends take them out and sometimes dancers are involved, either at a private venue where people come to them or they go to an establishment. So the thing about it is, how do we regulate it? There needs to be a way we can make sure that she stays in compliance and does what she says she is going to do.”
While Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams wants independent businesses to thrive across the city, he believes there needs to be restrictions when it comes to professions such as exotic dancers and businesses like strip clubs.
“The ordinance says it has to be tied to an establishment for a reason,” Williams said. “You just can’t give people that kind of license because you don’t know what they are doing. There is no way to control or monitor an independent dancer. If everybody had a license to go into a private home or a business and do this, that and the other, you just don’t know what is going to happen. We really can’t approve this request.”
Williams said Augusta already has businesses featuring exotic dancers on Broad Street and that’s exactly where that kind of activity needs to remain.
“Now, there are certain establishments that have that kind of dance and stuff inside of them and, just as long as they meet the guidelines, I’m going to support it,” Williams said. “But I can’t support a private, independent license like what she is suggesting that we have no way of controlling. I just can’t see it.”
If an exotic dancer is allowed to enter a private residence and conduct business, Williams said the local government would have its hands tied.
“The government can’t go into a private home and say, ‘Hey, are you performing certain acts on people and charging them money?’” Williams said. “That is a private person’s home. We can’t do that, but she wants a license to dance inside private residences. She might be already doing it on her own anyway. But if she gets caught, she would suffer some severe consequences, I would think.”
The city could create a dangerous situation for both the dancers and the people hiring them if commissioners approved Ellison’s request, Williams said.
“You don’t know who you are letting in your home and, as a dancer, you don’t know who’s home you are going in,” he said. “You might be going in a rapist’s home or a mass murderer’s house. Or a person coming in there may say they are a dancer, but they may not be. They might be trying to come inside for other reasons. So, I believe a license tied to a business is one thing, but giving out these licenses individually is a different story. And, in my opinion, I say, ‘No way.’”
In the almost 40 years he has worked for the city, Sherman said this is the first time he can remember that any exotic dancer has applied to be an independent contractor.
“People apply for the bar cards all the time, but we’ve never had anyone who wanted an independent license,” Sherman said. “Now, during our meeting, I think she did have a valid question. She asked, ‘What about the dancers who work the bachelor parties?’ And I didn’t have a good answer for that. If someone has a private party, what friends do with friends in a private residence, we don’t regulate that. Surely somebody is being paid, but, then again, prostitutes don’t come to us and ask for a business license either.”
While Smith says he is open to hearing what Ellison has to say during the Sept. 6 meeting, he believes the commission needs to be extremely cautious before even considering changing the city’s ordinance regarding exotic dancers.
“We’ve got all kind of weirdos in town who would be asking to do things similar to this, so you just can’t open the gates. If we did, what kind of community would we have?” Smith asked. “The next thing you know, the underworld and sleazeballs come in and take over because a lot of things are hinged on money and there is the potential there for somebody to make a whole lot of money.”
While a business promoting private exotic dancers might thrive in Augusta, Smith said he is fairly certain it wouldn’t enhance the community.
“I’m born and raised in this county and I want to protect it,” Smith said. “I am not saying no, but I dadgum sure am not saying yes, either. I want to hear what’s going on, but right now, the way I’m leaning, I’m not in favor of it. I mean, what is this really going to be? Girls on wheels? Let’s be honest, something doesn’t sound right.”