A deal on block closing time? It depends on who you talk to
State Senate President Bill Ferguson’s office announced a deal Friday morning that would allow the strip clubs on Baltimore’s Block to stay open until the usual 2 a.m. instead of closing at 10 p.m. under a bill he had introduced.
But the most outspoken club owner said she knew nothing about a deal.
The deal was announced in a press release from Ferguson’s office. It said Ferguson, the three delegates from his district, Luke Clippinger, Brooke Lierman and Robbyn Lewis and City Councilman Eric Costello had reached a “concept agreement” with “a representative majority of clubs” on The Block.
It included amendments to his bill that eliminate the 10 p.m. closing time, call for the consistent use of security cameras and sharing that footage with police. In addition, the clubs would pay for a deployment of police at peak hours and draft security plans to be approved by the city liquor board and police department.
But a few hours later, Sara Wantland, co-owner of the Club Pussycat, told WYPR she knew nothing about any agreement.
“We didn't reach no agreement,” she insisted. “We did not speak to any of the politicians that were proposing this bill. It was news to us.”
Her lawyer, Thiruh Vignarajah, said the two of them had a conference call with 10 other club owners after the agreement was announced..
“Each of them represented on the call confirmed that they had not reached a deal,” he said. “They did not know about a deal that had been reached. And they learned of it from the news this morning and were as surprised as the rest of us.”
Del. Clippinger, whose name was among those on the press release referred questions about the deal to Ferguson’s office.
“Talk to the Senate president's office,” he said. “He would be in a better position. He's the one who came to this agreement with people on the block.
In the afternoon, Ferguson’s office issued a statement saying he met February 6 with several of The Block’s licensees and their “authorized representatives” and that over the next two weeks negotiated with eight of the licensees to reach the agreement. His spokesman referred questions to Baltimore lawyer Frank Boston, who did most of the negotiating..
In a telephone interview, Boston said he had negotiated with many of the same clubs Vignarajah said had no knowledge of the agreement. And he said Vignarajah knew of the meetings.
Ferguson, whose district includes The Block, announced the bill at a news conference last month as part of an effort to reduce crime in the downtown adult entertainment district. He cited more than 800 calls for service, including shootings, robberies and assaults in the two-block stretch of East Baltimore Street in one year.
“Despite the efforts of police, despite increased deployments, despite having to stretch the entire district just to cover two blocks, not just the incidents of violence, but the severity of violence has escalated dramatically,” he said.
Vignarajah called claims of a crime problem on The Block “preposterous'' and said they aren’t supported by the data.
“You've got essentially 50 homicides in Baltimore, this year, not a single one of them has been in the central district,” he said. “Last year, there were 27 homicides in the central district, not a single one of them was anywhere near the block.”
He said none of the club owners he spoke with agreed to pay money for extra police and that many of them already comply with parts of the agreement Ferguson’s office announced.
“They already use camera security cameras and make that footage available to the police department as a matter of course,” he said. “That's something they've long done. Several of them have registered their cameras with the police department so City Watch can actually access them directly from the watch center without even their permission.”
The House version of the bill comes up for a hearing Monday afternoon. The hearing on the Senate bill is scheduled in March.