One of the central questions county legislators need to answer before they get on the bandwagon in support of the bill that would clamp new restrictions on adult bookstores is this:
Is the bill a veiled harassment of business or is it needed to address a serious problem in the community?
Legislators also need to squarely address another nagging question about this bill: Will any county department or police agency have the manpower or time to enforce it?
Harford Councilman Philip J. Barker's bill would target shops that carry skin flicks and magazines and all manner of exotic sexual devices -- shops better known by that strange euphemism, "adult bookstores."
This is not to say Barker'sbill is not without merit, nor that I'm a fan of these shops. The material they sell is more juvenile than adult. But they are one of those oddities of expression we must put up with if we want to have a First Amendment that means anything.
As for the bill's merits, police and prosecutors have gotten complaints alleging that sexual activity occurs at some of the shops.
If police were able to furnish the County Council with hard evidence that prostitution was occurring at the shops, then that might provide the "serious problem" that needs addressing in the community.
The bill does bear some pretty close scrutiny no matter what evidence police offer.
The head of the department that will be responsible for enforcing much of the law says he'll be hard-pressed to get people out to enforce it.
Barker disagrees. He says there are only five stores, and county inspectors shouldhave no trouble making visits.
If the County Council passes the bill, it should ensure it's going to be enforced. Laws passed by government and left unenforced give weight to the public's perception thatlegislators are nothing more than creators of white noise.
A lookat a few elements of the bill that raise other questions:
* The bill would require adult bookstore owners to get a license from the county. Many businesses, from pawn shops to roadside vendors, have to get such licenses.
Here's the hitch: The bill mandates a $500 application tab, a fee charged annually when the license is renewed.
That figure is five times higher than the county's most expensive business license fee, which it charges pawn shops.
Barker says the $500fee was derived from a similar law in Dallas.
If this means the county government is going to start modeling Harford's business license fees on those of major cities -- where the cost of living is usually higher than the suburbs -- then you can kiss Harford's effort to paint itself as "pro-business" goodbye.
* The provision that would require "regularly" checking the shop's parking lot and prohibit loitering outside the store.
The bill does not define how often lots must be checked.
Without some clear definition, the door is open to harassment by police or county inspectors, who you can bet will be lobbied by the group behind this bill, the Harford chapter of the American Family Association -- another misnomer. (The group's focus is anti-pornography campaigns, not campaigns which seriously address family-related issues such as affordable housing, child abuse and after-school care.)
* The provision that would prohibit such shops from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, public parks, child-care centers and neighborhoods.
What happens if the American Family Association or someone else opposed to the material sold in these shops rents a property next to the shop and opens a church? After all, anyone can say he is a minister these days and start a church.
Is the shop owner going to be denied a license to operate when he or she seeks a renewal? Sound far-fetched? Maybe. Maybe not.