Attorney Alan Begner knows which theory he supports; in his view, his clients Chaos and Fluid have been targeted for elimination by a city government eager to refashion Buckhead Village as a quiet shopping district with fewer bars.
"These clubs are being singled out as part of a scheme to get rid of Buckhead bar locations," he explains.
Chaos and Fluid, both owned by Atlanta businessman Brian Arlt, have been found in violation of the city's alcohol ordinance by the License Review Board for paying their liquor license fees with rubber checks.
The board has recommended a total of $9,000 in fines, as well as a 60-day license suspension for Chaos and a whopping 180-day suspension for Fluid. Typically, a "failure to renew" violation brings only a $1,000 fine.
Mayor Shirley Franklin is expected to issue the clubs' final punishment within the next couple of months. Upholding the licensing board's decision would effectively put both nightclubs out of business, Begner says.
It's easy to see why some might see a conspiracy behind the unusually harsh penalties hanging over the clubs' heads. During last fall's heated debate over the proposed roll back of bar hours, several nightclub owners urged the City Council to crack down on Buckhead's "handful of bad operators" rather than punish the entire local industry with earlier closing times. When asked by CL who were the bad apples causing problems for other club owners, many owners pointed at Chaos and Fluid, two of the few Buckhead clubs catering to a largely black clientele.
Certainly, a November gunfight outside Chaos that left two men dead brought the club unwanted notoriety and helped transform the bar hours discussion from a quality-of-life issue for Buckhead residents into a citywide public safety issue. With strong support from the mayor, the council voted in December to impose a 2:30 a.m. last call and 3 a.m. closing time for city bars.
In recent weeks, Buckhead Councilwoman Clair Muller also has huddled with city lawyers on how to implement her 2002 legislation that would weed out some of the bars and clubs in Buckhead by a process of attrition. Under her plan, by limiting the number of liquor licenses for the area, the city could refuse to grant new licenses and even reject requests for renewal. Ideally, the bars forced to close would be replaced with shops, restaurants and professional offices until the Village achieves a better balance of retail and entertainment offerings, she says.
So Begner's suspicions aren't so outlandish after all. Still, his clients' licensing problems are largely the result of a screw up whose blame clearly started at home.
This past August, when the management at Chaos and Fluid went to renew the clubs' liquor licenses, several checks -- totaling about $13,000, Begner recalls -- were mailed to the city, which dispatched the licenses before waiting for the funds to clear.
The checks, however, were written on a bad account and bounced. City officials sent several notices by mail to the clubs, asking them to pay the required fees, but received no response. The only explanation the clubs have offered is that the letters were not addressed to anyone's attention.
A week after the November shootings outside Chaos, police officers came to shut down the clubs in person. Begner won a court injunction that has kept the clubs open, pending the results of a hearing on charges of serving alcohol without a license. But if Franklin approves the suspensions recommended by the licensing board, that would spell a death sentence for the nightclubs, which earn most of their revenue from alcohol sales, Begner says. Even a 60-day suspension could cost a club its bar staff and customer base in a market loaded with competitors.
License Review Board Chairman Barney Simms says he received no pressure to come down hard on Chaos and Fluid, nor has he had any discussions with council members about how to rid Buckhead of some of its bars.
"I'm an independent thinker," he says. "We didn't treat this applicant any differently. Most people [license applicants] don't give the city a bad check, then ignore notices. We could have asked to have their license revoked. I thought we were really lenient."
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