Gadzooks! Can the tribulations of Fort Lauderdale's beleaguered nightclubs get any worse? The venues are running scared, unsure of whether they're going to be raided, busted, or forced to close. (The third looks likely in the case of Atlantis Night Club.)
Yet for one brief, shining moment last week, the city and the clubs seemed to have negotiated a compromise, allowing the businesses to operate while admitting patrons both above and below the age of 21. The key: physical separation. At the Chili Pepper, for instance, kids would be confined to the club's outdoor courtyard; alcohol would be available only inside. In theory and practice, this remedy usually works. The scowl of a brawny bouncer is usually enough to deter even the most uppity youngster.
The city commission was set to vote on this very workable solution at its November 7 meeting when Police Chief Mike Brasfield stepped to the podium with a little something to say about the Chili Pepper. At previous meetings in the running battle over under-21 clubgoers, Chili Pepper manager Skip Murray had asserted that his place rarely had any trouble that required calling the cops. Chief Brasfield agreed -- then whipped out the records of 188 fire-rescue visits to the club between June 1997 and September 2000.
The nature of the reports isn't particularly surprising: 30 overdoses, 9 seizures, 21 assaults, 3 traumas, 7 "persons down," 13 medical calls, 41 unconscious people, 7 with breathing trouble, and 53 miscellaneous calls. But one statistic seems odd and more than a little unlikely: four suicide attempts at the Chili Pepper within that roughly three-year span. The chief also mentioned several ongoing drug-related investigations centering on the club. (Police spokesman Det. Mike Reed says four suspects in such a case were arrested about two weeks ago.)
After that bombshell, the commission tabled the separation plan, effectively killing it. Murray, who showed up at the commission meeting to discuss the deal, says Chief Brasfield's litany of offenses stunned him.
"It flabbergasted everyone," Murray says. "He didn't give us one chance to rebut him. He just started ranting and raving about the drug problem, coming up with these figures -- and I don't know where these figures are coming from -- and saying we're such a drug den."
Adding to Murray's woes: Vice Mayor Tim Smith, who had previously indicated that he was in favor of the compromise, decided to abstain from the vote -- even before the chief's report -- because of a conflict of interest. It turns out the Chili Pepper actually employed Smith.
In what capacity, you ask?
"He watered our plants!" Murray snaps. He's not kidding. Smith's firm, TLC Landscaping, had handled the club's outside gardening work for nearly a year. "When it came to this vote, he thought it would be a conflict of interest all of a sudden, and he pulled out," Murray says. "I'd like to know why it wasn't a conflict of interest when he voted for the under-21 ban."
Smith explains his position in these terms: "All along I've been voting against stuff for them, like banning the under-21 individuals from clubs. So that wasn't a conflict, because I was actually penalizing them. I guess you could look at it that way. But when it came to a position where I was going to be in favor of something that helped them, if I'm voting on something that could benefit me, then it's illegal for me to vote on it.
"So I was thinking about it that morning [before the meeting], and I called the city attorney and said, "If I'm in favor of the separation plan, can that help me financially?'" He says the city's legal counsel, Dennis Lyles, wasn't certain that an actual conflict existed but recommended that he recuse himself, if only to avoid the appearance of impropriety. "So I said right off the bat that I was going to participate in discussion but that I wasn't going to vote on it," Smith concludes. Lyles did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson, for her part, has a stricter set of guidelines when it comes to voting on entities in which she has a financial interest. "If I get paid by a certain organization, I don't intend to vote either way, simply because it would look bad," she says. "What anybody else does on the eighth floor [where the commissioners' offices are located] is up to them."
Smith's decision to recuse himself angered Murray, who decided to hit the green-thumbed commissioner where it hurts.
"I just fired him yesterday," Murray told Bandwidth November 9. "Business is business, but when it gets down to -- pardon my French -- to nut-cutting, and this guy is in a position of passing the separation plan that both the Chili Pepper and the Culture Room wanted, it wasn't a conflict of interest. If that were the case, then it was also a conflict of interest for him to even vote [on the under-21 ban] in the first place. Voting for the separation would have kept us in business. So in other words it's OK if he closes us, but it's not OK if he keeps us open."
Murray laughs sardonically at his predicament. The clubs involved had crafted a viable, good-faith deal with the city, and then the police chief said "drugs," and all commission support dried up -- even from those commissioners who didn't prune his petunias for a living.
The landscaper-in-chief says it couldn't have unfolded any other way. "[Brasfield] said, "Basically you're going to be in favor of letting kids go into this club where we're going to have some deaths,'" Smith states. "And hey, we can't do that. We can't even consider it."
Even though he couldn't vote, Smith says the report regarding the suicide attempts was "the wildest thing I'd ever heard. It was disturbing. None of us could support the separation plan at that point. We're not going to make laws to accommodate clubs that are dangerous to our young people, and that sounds like it's dangerous to me."
Hutchinson says she is still very sympathetic to the plight of underage clubgoers. "But what I saw in the presentation from the [police] chief took the wind out of my sails," she says. "I walked into the room intending to support the separation, and then, when I saw the EMS calls, I just couldn't. Quite frankly it put a real hush over the room. There wasn't going to be any support for a separation after that."
Murray counters that the Chili Pepper hasn't had even one liquor infraction in the four years it has been open. He says the suicide reports are ludicrous. "People don't go to a nightclub to kill themselves," he scoffs. "If you're going to hang yourself, you probably shouldn't go where there's 2000 people."
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He proceeds to lose his temper, going off on a profane rant against Mayor Jim Naugle before dialing his rage back down. "People under 50 need to take this city back," he stews. "It's falling into the hands of people like the mayor and multimillionaires who build condos on the beach. It's a goddamn shame that we're running politics in Fort Lauderdale the way they would have in Chicago in the '40s. It's not just conservative, it's backward. They won't be happy until they have run every club out of town."
But what about those distressing "suicide attempts"? Of the four police reports, one involved a drunken girl calling from a pay phone outside the Chili Pepper to say she was going to kill herself (she didn't); two described people threatening to walk into the path of a train or a car at least a block from the club (they didn't); and the last dealt with a man on the sidewalk in front of the club who reported "hearing voices" and hadn't "taken his medication for about two days."
Despite the flimsiness of the Chili Pepper connection, spokescop Reed offers this tasty morsel of amateur child psychology: "I know the prominent singers in a lot of the bands have committed suicide, so some of the young kids are going out there and emulating them by killing themselves during the music. That's the theory I'm thinking of."
Hmmm. Suicidal singers. Nirvana, Joy Division, the Gin Blossoms... none is currently in heavy rotation at the Chili Pepper. Then again, these hip national trends do take a while to work themselves down to South Florida.