City memo outlines future nuisance business report

Friday, March 7, 2008 | 3:51 p.m. CST; updated 12:58 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — In light of recent incidents of violence at local night clubs, Columbia city staff is compiling a report for the City Council that could lead to restrictions on the liquor licenses of nuisance businesses, according to an internal memo.

Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser requested a report at the council’s Feb. 4 meeting. She said the city has no written policy for dealing with nuisance businesses.

“We don’t seem to have a procedure to deal with these kinds of issues,” Nauser said, referring specifically to Athena Night Club, which closed after a series of violent incidents, including the ruckus in which former Missouri basketball player Stefhon Hannah was injured.

“If you have a hundred and something calls a year, for a (bar), there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to trigger a tougher approach to dealing with it,” Nauser said.

The councilwoman wants to extend the city’s existing nuisance party ordinance — which fines unruly partygoers, underage drinkers and their landlords — to include businesses. A model, she said, already exists in Kansas City, which defines nuisance businesses as those that have multiple and persistent occurrences of:

  • Crimes on the premises of the business.
  • Neighborhood complaints about the business.
  • Building code violations.
  • Remodeling the premises without permits.
  • Fire code violations.
  • Crowding.
  • Traffic congestion around the businesses.
  • Ongoing criminal activity in or around the premises.
  • Illegal drug activity in or around the premises.
  • High demand for police services in or around the premises.

Nauser said she compiled the internal memo, which has been given to the Columbia Police Department, with Kansas City’s Nuisance Business Task Force as a model.

The Kansas City process for reviewing a business is triggered by criteria such as five or more police calls for service within a month or a homicide within the past 12 months on or stemming from the business premises.

As it stands, Columbia police trigger local response to nuisance night clubs and bars when they refer them to Janice Finley, the city’s business services administrator. Finley, a Finance Department employee, manages the city’s liquor licenses.

“(The city) puts out criteria for other issues under our nuisance ordinance for buildings and property,” Nauser said. “But we don’t seem to have any mechanism to address places that have become, in my opinion, a nuisance.”

In the case of Athena, which did business at 1100 Locust St., the city and police sent letters to and met with the business owners to warn them that they were at risk of losing their liquor license. Before the nightclub closed in February, city officials suspended Athena’s liquor license on Jan. 18. The action was immediately appealed. And, in a series of legal moves after the appeal, the club was allowed to operate after being reprimanded for failing to follow police recommendations that included performing criminal background checks on employees.

Similarly, police began to take action against DaLena’s, a restaurant and nightclub at 128 E. Nifong Blvd., before it closed on Monday. A Feb. 25 letter from Columbia police Officer Tim Thomason outlined for Finley 19 incidents of violence that had occurred or begun in or near the business. The most recent was on Feb. 23, when a person was allegedly attacked with a tire iron in the parking lot.

But Elena Sapp, who co-owned DaLena’s with her husband, Darrell, said police reports involving her business were exaggerated. She said most of the calls for police service at her restaurant came from her or an employee.

“You’re going to have fights; our bar wasn’t different from anyone else in Columbia,” Elena Sapp said. “No one has ever been arrested on my parking lot.”

Still, Sapp said she didn’t close her business, which opened in July, because of crime or police pressure. Rather, she said, she closed when her landlord asked her to move out.

“He’s got pressure from neighboring businesses,” Sapp said, “a lot of pressure saying, ‘Get them out of this neighborhood. ... If this is what they’re doing, why are they allowing it to happen?’”

Sapp said she and her husband plan to reopen in a new location. But she claims Columbia police were prejudiced against her “black club.”

“It’s very, very racial. There is no black club in Columbia, none whatsoever,” Sapp said. “People compared me to Athena. ... You can’t tell me that places like The Field House have never had a problem. They’re still allowed to stay, and I’m being tossed around.”

Columbia police Capt. Zim Schwartze, who is researching Nauser’s memo for the City Council, said police monitor all bars in Columbia and don’t single out individual businesses.

“We have been monitoring all the bars in Columbia, and we had several reports (of violence) since August (at DaLena’s),” Schwartze said.

Nauser said she hopes to see a report on the matter as early as April.

“I want staff to give us ideas and then have City Council to recommend,” she said. “We offer a lot of programs, but we don’t have a comprehensive plan.”

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