Andrew Williams is still standing, much to the chagrin of Cincinnati officials and some of his neighbors. The city of Cincinnati has attempted on numerous occasions to close William’s nightclub — known variously as Club Oasis, Club Ritz and Club Aqua Nite Life — through legal means but he continues to stay open to fight another day.
In this latest David versus Goliath tale, Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge David Stockdale recently struck down the city’s dance hall license law, declaring it unconstitutional and that it violates Ohio law. Stockdale ruled the law interferes with a business’ right to operate once a license has been issued, along with failing to provide for a hearing before or after a renewal decision is made.
“I feel elated and happy to see the legal process working in our favor,” says Williams, who continues to operate the club in Roselawn.
The 50-year-old’s elation also extends to the dismissal of a city citation charging him with unlawful operation of a dance hall. Williams believes the dance hall license, a $2,000 annual fee, is used by the Cincinnati Police Department to oversee the operation of dance halls that cater to one particular clientele: African Americans.
“I think it’s unfair and everybody should be judged together,” says Williams, who believes bars and nightclubs that cater mostly to non-whites are more heavily scrutinized than those which don’t.
Agreeing with him that the process is flawed are Cincinnati City Councilmen Wendall Young, a Democrat, and Charlie Winburn, a Republican.
During council’s recent Public Safety Committee meeting, Young introduced a proposal to scrap the dance hall licensing law and asked the City Solicitor John Curp not to appeal Stockdale’s ruling.
Additionally, the proposal orders the city administration to refund all the fees that been collected for the 2011 licensing process and develop a new regulatory process that complies with state law.
Young said the current licensing process is unfair, and both he and Winburn believe that unfairness extends to the city’s liquor license process. Young noted that enforcement is sporadic and not evenly applied across the board.
He believes the Police Department isn’t using its “matrix process” — guidelines approved by City Council in 2006 as a tool for police to help them determine which bars are a nuisances — during the beginnings of investigations, but only at the end.
Also, Young noted that dance hall licenses should be regulated by the city treasurer’s office but instead the office is taking its direction from the Police Department. Council’s Public Safety Committee is expected to discuss the proposal at a June 14 session.
Cincinnati Police didn’t respond to calls seeking comment by deadline.
Although Williams won the latest round in court regarding his dance hall permit, he still must deal with Ohio officials regarding his liquor license. Liquor permits are renewed on a yearly basis and, in Hamilton County, they expired June 1. If a governing jurisdiction opposes a liquor permit, the objection must be sent to the Ohio Division of Liquor Control at least 30 days prior to the permit’s expiration date.
In April City Council voted to oppose the renewal of Club Aqua’s liquor license due to past violent activity that has occurred inside and near the club. Club Aqua is one of 10 businesses — seven of which were bars — that council members recommended not have their licenses renewed. All of the businesses are either owned or cater to African Americans.
Others include businesses in College Hill, Corryville, Evanston, Madisonville, Northside, Walnut Hills and the West End.
This is City Council’s third attempt to close Club Aqua, located at 1725 Seymour Ave., where 21-year-old Dexter Burroughs died last year after being shot in the head while inside the club.
In April the dead man’s father, Ehling Burroughs, appeared before City Council to urge that the club’s liquor license be revoked.
“Again we get the same from Club Ritz,” the elder Burroughs said at the time. “Something happens, they close down and change the name. The only thing this club has done in the last few years is spit in everybody’s faces.”
In fact, despite the increase in security and the installation of metal detectors, several arrests have occurred at or near the club for offenses including disorderly conduct, drug possession, assault and domestic violence. Also, incidents of robbery or carjacking have occurred.
Williams contends that he isn’t responsible for what his customers do outside of the bar; he can only control what happens inside. Violent incidents inside the bar haven’t occurred since he has worked with police and beefed up security, he adds.
“I should not be held responsible for what another human being decides to do,” Williams says.
Violent and criminal activity aren’t exclusive to the African-American community, he adds. Although city residents might not hear about it, fights occur at other bars, too.
For example, businesses and bars around Cincinnati have complained to police regarding the Iron Horsemen motorcycle gang. Last September a gun battle between police and gang members occurred outside J.D. Honky Tonk & Emporium in Camp Washington. Gang member Harry Seavey, 51, was killed in the gunfight, which produced 30 fired rounds. Two officers were wounded: one in the leg, the other in the hip.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters determined that Seavey’s death was a justified shooting. The gun battle reportedly began because the motorcycle gang sitting in J.D. Honky Tonk’s beer garden believed a rival motorcycle gang was attacking them.
Despite the incident, J.D. Honky Tonk’s liquor license hasn’t come under scrutiny by city officials. That has caused some critics to question the procedures used by City Council and the Police Department as discriminatory.
Councilman Cecil Thomas, a retired police officer, says he understands the problems that face club owners and realize most of them do what they can to keep their clientele safe. But when they cater to a certain type of customer, such as those who might glamorize the thug lifestyle, they take on risks.
Defending the city’s process, Thomas says that when council objects to a license, it takes into account how that business affects the surrounding area. Among the factors considered are how often does law enforcement respond to problems there and how does its neighbors view the establishment.
“All of that is taken into account to determine an objection or not,” Thomas says.
“The problem is not (that) one incident will get you shut down, but a culmination of incidents will possibly raise our objections,” Thomas adds.
But the question remains how much of the activity that occurs surrounding a bar is the owner’s responsibility. Some bar and club owners are preparing to organize to lobby for their businesses and ensure city rules are evenly enforced.
Community activist Sam Malone — an ex-City Council member and Winburn protege — is hoping to have an organization in place within the next few weeks to address those issues and give bar owners a collective voice.