February 17, 2020

Council’s wisdom put to test

After the Bangor City Council’s flip-flop votes this week on the local adult-entertainment ordinance – the first that unleashed a firestorm of anti-nudity protest and the second that quickly snuffed the flames – residents are left to ponder a couple of conclusions about the people who are running this city.

On one hand, the councilors would appear to be extraordinarily sensitive and responsive to the will of the people. On the other hand, some members don’t seem to have their fingers enough on the pulse of the community to recognize what the will of the people is, at least when it comes to the ever-contentious issue of strip joints within the city limits.

On Friday, Mayor Dan Tremble admitted to the first assessment proudly, and somewhat sheepishly to the second.

For perspective, let’s start at the beginning. Last month, a national chain of strip clubs called Platinum Plus came to town with a proposal to open a topless joint in the former Pilots Grill restaurant, similar to the club now in Portland. Bangor’s 6-year-old adult-entertainment ordinance, however, prohibits the sale of alcohol in clubs that feature topless dancers. Bare breasts or booze, in other words, but not both in the same place.

But Platinum Plus wanted both, of course, which required that the city amend its ordinance to accommodate the new business. On Monday, with a vote of 5-4, the council did just that, thereby clearing the way for a club along the commercial strip on Outer Hammond Street.

The backlash came swiftly. Protesters gathered on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday to launch a petition drive aimed at reversing the council’s ordinance change, while City Hall employees and councilors fielded hundreds of phone calls and e-mails from angry residents. The public response was 50 or 60 to 1 against the strip club.

By Thursday night, after a couple of councilors apparently had taken enough heat to force a sudden change of heart over the issue, a special meeting was called and the old ordinance was reinstated by a vote of 7-0.

“When I’m wrong,” said Councilor Richard Greene, who took more than 75 of the angry calls himself, “I’m the first to admit it because I have to look at myself in the mirror.”

Councilor John Cashwell, who admitted he had been naive when he voted for the ordinance amendment on Monday, called the nudity flap a “civics lesson that will be long remembered.”

So why, you might ask, did the council bother to even open this messy can of worms in the first place just to turn around and put the lid back on so soon afterward?

“I guess I just didn’t see the implications of it,” Mayor Tremble said Friday. “I knew some people would be upset, sure, but I didn’t think the opposition would be as strong as it was. Clearly, this kind of entertainment is not what the community wants.”

Tremble said he seriously misjudged the mood of the community regarding such racy entertainment as strip clubs. But he insisted that he hadn’t heard much opposition at all from the public before Monday’s council meeting, and was genuinely stunned to learn the true extent of it later.

“People have since told me the reason they didn’t make their opinions known beforehand was because they never thought we’d ever vote to change the ordinance,” Tremble said. “I guess we were naive about the whole process.”

While a relative newcomer to the area such as Cashwell might be excused for not knowing how Bangor people feel about nudity-based forms of entertainment, Tremble said, “I don’t have that excuse, having lived here for all 39 years of my life. I probably should have had a better sense of it.”

Tremble said the council’s involvement in the ordinance change was a mistake from the start.

“In hindsight, if the people from Platinum Plus really wanted a club here that badly then they should have been the ones to get enough signatures to call for a referendum on the ordinance,” he said. “The council shouldn’t be burdened with this to begin with. That was our biggest mistake.”

Tremble admitted that the council probably would never have considered the ordinance change were it not meant to help Bill Zoidis, a popular and prominent local businessman for decades, to sell his former restaurant to Platinum Plus. Zoidis has since decided not to sell to the chain after all.

“If it were just anybody, without that kind of strong link to the community, I don’t think the council would have even discussed changing the ordinance,” Tremble said. “That’s probably not a valid reason, though. We jumped the gun on this one.”

Although Tremble believes the council is wiser now for its mistakes of the past week, he said people in Bangor should understand that Platinum Plus will definitely not be the last adult-oriented business eager to set up shop in a city poised to become Maine’s first gambling mecca.

“We did vote as a city to bring in slot machines, after all,” he said. “So if people around here don’t think there will be more of this kind of thing coming our way, then they’re the ones who are being naive.”

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