News Column

Details emerge on strip club settlement

July 7, 2014

By Tom McLaughlin, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach



July 07--DESTIN -- Behind closed doors, attorneys told the Destin City Council they were running out of legal options and there was only one way to keep a strip club out of the city.

But it would cost them.

"I think the best way to control your destiny (and) to have no sexually oriented business in Destin ... is to basically let them have their way with us," attorney Larry Brown told council members at the April 21 meeting.

Attorneys Brown, Scott Shirley and Jerry Miller made it clear they found the $2.15 million city officials would have to come up with to buy back a strip club contract "exorbitant."

Recently obtained transcripts of the executive session meeting indicate they also seemed to recognize the uniqueness of what Destin hoped to accomplish by paying a business to go away.

Read the minutes from the meeting.

"I guess I don't think that anybody feels entirely comfortable with this, because it's a very unusual thing to be doing," Shirley said.

The legal team further grasped the apparent futility in continuing to fight Trident Operations LLC and its partners to prevent the opening of The Runway adult entertainment business.

The transcript indicates the council was told that to reject the Trident offer was to invite continued expensive, probably fruitless, litigation.

"It is likely that the city would not prevail in preventing the business from going where it is proposed to be located, and the city would end up with a damages award too," said Shirley.

Decision time and paying up

As the executive session meeting progressed it became clear how city leaders would act.

They voted 7-0 following the meeting to shell out the funds to buy out The Runway, and were applauded by many local residents for their efforts.

In accordance with the settlement agreement, $400,000 went to Red Brick Construction, which, in exchange, turned over the Airport Road lot the strip club was to be built upon.

The other $1.75 million was divided between Trident and a handful of other limited liability companies created by associates of the late Terry Stephenson, who had originally negotiated the sexually oriented business contract the city bought. Stephenson was killed outside his Atlanta area strip club in 2010.

Some of the settlement money went to Stephenson's widow, said Dana Matthews, a local attorney who helped represent Trident.

No room for 'buyer's remorse'

During the executive session Councilman Rodney Braden asked why the council was being nudged to settle quickly with Trident.

"It's the best time for both parties to settle the case before we both start spending really serious money," Shirley answered.

It was also important for the council to make a decision and be done, Shirley advised.

"Everybody needs to get this entire transaction behind us," he said. "And one thing you don't want to do is sign this agreement, become bound to it, and then be influenced subsequently by public debate and have buyer's remorse and change your mind."

Matthews said time had begun to run out for the city legal team following a federal court hearing not long before the settlement was reached.

"We felt pretty good after the hearing that a significant order was going to be issued on behalf of Trident," he said.

Soon after the federal court hearing, the city asked to re-enter mediation, Matthews said.

Council members were concerned about the amount of money being demanded by Trident, where it would come from, whether the deal could be done as quickly as called for and public perception of their action, the transcript showed.

"It looks to me like we're, the way this is, we're admitting fault to whatever, because we're paying whatever they come up with," Braden said. "It's like we've been found guilty and now we have to pay everything."

Council member Tuffy Dixon suggested the city had no choice but to settle.

"It looks to me like whatever way we go, we're going to pay," he said. Then added, "And I don't think we can win the thing as far as in the public opinion arena."

Council member Sandy Trammell even suggested adding a caveat to the deal stating the strip club representatives couldn't speak badly of the council in the aftermath of the settlement.

"Is there any way we can just put in here or do a gentleman's agreement ... they are not allowed to publicly slap us in the face...?" she asked.

Contact Daily News Staff Writer Tom McLaughlin at 850-315-4435 or tmclaughlin@nwfdailynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomMnwfdn.

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(c)2014 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)

Visit the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) at www.nwfdailynews.com

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Source: Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach)


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