A measure proposed by the city to amend Title XI of the city code to restrict patrons from observing and engaging in live sex acts at establishments like swingers’ clubs ended in a deadlocked City Council vote Tuesday night.
The measure focused on new regulations established by the Allen County Commissioners in June, which would prohibit “live sex act” businesses. The commissioners linked an increase to STIs, drug numbers and sex trafficking to these types of businesses.
In a debate that lasted several hours, the Champagne Club was often referenced as a business at risk. The Champagne Club -- a swingers’ club that functions as a private, not public, entity -- has been open for eight years, and has more than 6,000 members, nearly 20% of which are from Fort Wayne. With most members coming from out of state, both Council and the club estimate those visitors bring in $5 million to $10 million to Fort Wayne annually.
Nobody can just go to the Champagne Club and expect “live sex acts,” either; according to officials from the club and its website, there’s a $60 cover followed by a rigorous approval process for new members, including a scan through the sex offender registry.
And Fort Wayne police captain Kevin Hunter says the club has largely stayed out of trouble -- only a handful of calls were made in those eight years, with two resulting in action, both of which occurring outside of the club’s hours of operation.
The city’s legal counsel argued that amendments such as this have been implemented all over the state, and suggested that while, yes, the Champagne Club has followed the rules, maybe a new business that won’t will come to town. City attorney Carol Helton says it’s a question of health, legality… and values.
“We've heard from a lot of people that live in Michigan, we've heard from people that live in Ohio, we've heard from a lot of people that live in Illinois and the surrounding areas. But we have heard from very few people who actually reside in Fort Wayne and have Fort Wayne values,” Helton said. She asked Council "to keep that in mind when looking at the emails they've been receiving from people expressing support for this club."
One of the most ardent voices against the measure was at-large Republican councilman John Crawford.
He argued that the club is “collateral damage” as the city revises ordinances following the Rabbit’s lawsuit in 2018, there are similar clubs in Indianapolis and Muncie, and the increase in sexually transmitted infections has been more prevalent among younger residents who don’t meet the income bracket of a typical Champagne Club member.
He ultimately said it was beyond Council to legislate values, because then a decision must be made on whose values are represented.
“19%, that’s 2,880, of its members are from Fort Wayne. So, 2,880 people with Fort Wayne values have joined and approved of this club, otherwise they wouldn’t have joined the club,” Crawford said.
Crawford said he received nearly 400 emails -- many from Fort Wayne residents listing their names and addresses -- and the ratio of those who opposed the measure to those who supported it was nine-to-one. He said between this and getting a tour of the Champagne Club before its regular business hours on Saturday, August 10, he believed any connection being made to the city’s strip clubs was unfair.
“This club is associated with strip clubs in peoples’ minds, but in scientific studies, we’re taught association is not causation," he said. "This club does not cause the problems we have with the strip clubs; this club is an entirely different entity from the strip clubs.”
Republican Michael Barranda also voted against it, saying the existence of the club is against his own morals, but felt the measure interfered with the “basic freedoms of consenting adults.” He also found the proposal disingenuous.
“If you want to bring something provocative enough to distract from other issues in our community, actual issues of crime and things that our community is addressing, this is a great way to do it, look at the news cameras here," he said before offering a quick "hello" to reporters.
"And I applaud [the city] for doing that because there’s no better way to cover up the issues in our city than by talking about strippers and swingers for the next few months,” he added.
5th District Democratic councilman Geoff Paddock voted for the restrictions, saying it was in his district and that he was proud of the effort.
“They feel that it is a blemish on their neighborhood, they feel that it is unfortunate that such an organization exists across from a neighborhood, a public school, a playground, and they don’t really think that’s the right use," Paddock said.
He added that, if the club was as nice as Crawford said, it could still exist as an entertainment establishment, just without “illicit sexual activity.”
The final vote was 3-3-1; the three votes against it noted the city wasn’t convincing enough in connecting the rise in STIs and drug and human trafficking to swingers clubs.
Republican 1st District councilman Paul Ensley abstained, saying he couldn’t rationalize his morality versus his belief of minimal government. Republicans Tom Didier and Jason Arp were not present for the vote.
During the later common council meeting, 2nd District Republican Russ Jehl -- who supported the measure -- asked if it could be held for two weeks in order for Didier to participate in the vote. That motion failed 4-3, and now, the ordinance is dead.