Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen motions to defer a vote on new alcohol licensing rules.

After hearing from concerned bar owners, hospitality workers and industry advocates at its Thursday meeting, the New Orleans City Council decided to defer a vote on an ordinance to overhaul the city’s laws surrounding businesses that serve alcohol. The issue will come up again at the Council’s Sept. 19 meeting.

The ordinance has been in the works since former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. Landrieu’s controversial proposal included a provision requiring that all businesses with alcoholic beverage permits install cameras linked to the city’s Real-Time Crime Monitoring Center and another that allowed for the emergency suspension of a permit, without a hearing by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. That proposal was dropped last year, before Mayor LaToya Cantrell and a new council took office. 

The current City Council revisited it in November 2018 and introduced a new ordinance the next month. That proposal called for cameras at certain “nuisance bars” as an alternative to license revocation and kept the language on emergency suspensions. Since then, it has been rewritten and repeatedly amended to address the concerns of the hospitality industry and local culture advocates. 

When taking into account a package of proposed amendments introduced on Thursday, the new rules would be much looser than originally proposed, meeting many of the demands from advocates and workers. 

“The people in this room are getting 95 to 99 percent of what they wanted,” said Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, who co-authored the ordinance with Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen. 

Emergency suspensions

But there are lingering problems with the ordinance, at least according to those who delivered public comment at Thursday’s meeting. The central issue raised was the provision on emergency suspensions. In the unamended version of the ordinance, the superintendent of the Police or Fire Department or the director of the Department of Safety and Permits would have been allowed to order the suspension of alcoholic beverage outlet permits if there was a violation posing “imminent danger to the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” 

Within 10 business days of the suspension, the Alcoholic Beverage Board would review the suspension, giving the business a chance to rebut the city’s justifications. 

Those concerns had been raised during stakeholder meetings this summer, according to Palmer, by groups such as the Louisiana Restaurant Association and the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans. 

In response, the council introduced an amendment that would force the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to take additional steps before it could actually act on the new emergency suspension powers. Under the amendment, the board would have the power to summarily suspend ABO permits, but it would have to draft rules and regulations that would establish when and why they could suspend a license. Then those rules would have to be approved by the Council. 

But many opponents argued that the board shouldn’t have that power at all. 

“My single largest issue is this emergency suspension issue,” David Halpern said at Thursday’s meeting. Halpern is a former chair of the New Orleans Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. He said that in his 12 years on the board, there wasn’t a single instance that required that power. 

Other government agencies, including the New Orleans Police Department, New Orleans Fire Department, the Department of Safety and Permits can already shut businesses down. And the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control can suspend state-issued alcoholic beverage permits. 

“I personally experienced a situation where the state utilized its suspension power three days before Mardi Gras,” Halpern said. “It is a terrible weapon. It is too powerful.” 

Councilman Jason Williams sided with Halpern, saying that the power could be used as a “weapon” by the board with the intention of closing bars they see as a problem by suspending their license during the most profitable times of the year. 

“How many states of emergency will you fabricate until you can cut the ribbon when we’re gone?” asked Lyn Archer, a stripper who works on Bourbon Street. 

Archer said that she had first hand experience of what a government body can do to her livelihood when equipped with emergency suspension powers. She used to work for Temptations, one of the eight clubs that were temporarily shut down by the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control in January 2018. Temptations would close permanently soon after, in part due to two emergency suspensions of its liquor license, according to The Times-Picayune / New Orleans Advocate

The state said the investigations into the clubs was initiated to combat sex trafficking. But many saw it as a veiled attempt to get rid of what some city and state officials saw as a blight on the French Quarter. 

Archer also pointed to a potential amendment introduced on Thursday that would prevent outdoor benches or seating specifically at “adult performance venues.” Archer said that she and other strippers have been continuously lobbying the city to remove “discrimination from the city code, especially by gender and source of income.”

‘Yet one more obstacle to employment’

Another issue raised by public speakers was a change barring people from getting alcohol licenses if they’ve been convicted of a felony in the past five years. 

“I do have a problem … with us codifying yet one more obstacle to employment,” Williams said. 

Palmer said that was a statute that already existed in state law.

“I’m equally as frustrated as you,” she said to Williams. “But the reality is that if you get a permit from the city you also need one from the state.”

Throughout the meeting, Councilwoman Palmer and Councilman Jay Banks stressed that the intent of the ordinance was not to create new restrictions and barriers for bars. The goal was the opposite  — to get rid of problematic language in existing laws. 

“The bulk of these changes either update the terminology or remove discriminatory language,” Palmer said. “This isn’t about targeting certain types of businesses or changing the culture of New Orleans.” 

“I would not support this if I think this would add difficulties for you,”  Banks said to the business owners and hospitality workers present at the meeting. “At the end of the day I think this has real benefit.”

For example, under existing rules, an applicant could be denied a permit if they or their spouse had been convicted of a felony or “any misdemeanor involving moral turpitude” in the past five years. The proposed ordinance removes that language.

The ordinance would also remove the requirement for permit holders and their employees to submit fingerprints and headshots to the city. 

The currently proposed ordinance also omits many of the more controversial aspects of the ordinance as introduced in December. One example was a “neighborhood compatibility” section that stated that if five or more residents within a half-mile of a bar submitted written complaints, that bar would be presumed to be a “nuisance” or “detrimental to the health, safety, and welfare of the community.” 

Still, concerns from business owners were enough to hold off a vote on Thursday. Some members of the council expressed concerns that this process would continue to drag on if they didn’t force a vote. Others disagreed. 

“We can just defer it until we get it right,” Williams said.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and Pacific Standard. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which he used to report on water scarcity, division, and colonialism in Cyprus.