The devil, you say?

When former Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez fled Central Florida to take his place in Resident Bush's cabinet, an expectant light shone on Martinez's successor, Richard T. Crotty. What sociopolitical philosophy would define Crotty's tenure? Would he adhere to the established policy that "family entertainment" shall forever be the area's image?

A proposal advanced by Crotty on Monday, Feb. 5 -- his first legislative move since assuming office -- cleared up the confusion. He doesn't want the greater Orlando area to resemble a scene from 102 Dalmatians; he's more intent on following the Footloose model. And he himself is campaigning hard for the John Lithgow part.

In a memorandum titled "'Dance Hall' Moratorium" (all apologies, Wang Chung), Crotty advanced an ordinance that would put a nine-month halt to the granting of permits for "dance halls throughout the unincorporated areas of the county." Though the term "dance hall" is used most specifically these days in a reggae context, its employment here clearly did not denote the presence of Shaggy mixes in Crotty's record collection. Instead, its meaning was made clear in the memo's first paragraph, which addressed entrepreneur Mike Zaccardo's announced plans to open an entertainment complex at the site of the old McInerney Ford dealership east of Orlando at Colonial Drive and Semoran Boulevard. Those plans, Crotty explained, had been the source of significant "community concerns."

Yes, Crotty was positioning himself as a courageous defender of the pastoral Azalea Park neighborhood. But in a press conference in the County Administration Center, Crotty made it clear that Zaccardo's project was but the prototype for "a new kind of entertainment complex" that would combine bar facilities with tattooing, body piercing and the sale of club-kid merchandise. Crotty coined a new moniker for the feared hybrid: a "rave mall." (Isn't that the name of a series on UPN?)

Crotty's salvo was merely the latest, most extreme measure in Central Florida's ongoing crusade against youth-targeted nightlife, a wrongheaded jihad passed off as a high-stakes battle in the war on drugs. For years now, the bogeyman of underage addiction has been used as a wedge against such downtown venues as The Club at Firestone -- kind of ironic, given that the local-music cottage industry such clubs represent was earning the area international press long before Mr. Martinez went to Washington. But the ordinance was a notably bass-ackwards approach to the alleged crisis: If you can't stop the drugs, it seemed to argue, you sure can stop all that dancing. Or at least you can in John Ashcroft's house.

It was no wonder, then, that this bold undertaking brought out the usual suspects. Applauded for their "leadership" in bringing the matter to Crotty's attention were County Commissioner Mary I. Johnson (whose district houses the McInerney site) and Sheriff Kevin Beary. Beary explained his participation to the Sentinel by saying he was tired of having to inform parents of their children's fatal overdoses. "That is not a good time," Beary said. Shooting them yourself ... now that's a day at Disney.

To say that this initiative is filled with loopholes does not do it justice: It's one huge loophole. The ordinance attempts to distinguish its targets from more legitimate dancing establishments, including hotels, church halls, schools and governmental buildings -- in other words, anywhere the Lindy Hop can be expected to be performed on a reliable basis. But even within those sketchy parameters, the potential for misunderstanding is rife. Violators may include establishments wherein "dancing by, between, or among customers, patrons or guests is permitted or condoned, regardless of whether and the extent to which dancing actually takes place" (our emphasis).

Let's get this straight: Thinking about breaking into a two-step is just as actionable as going through with it? How can a club owner be held culpable for "permitting" or "condoning" dancing that doesn't actually materialize? Could the Hoofer Police ever enforce this standard on American Bandstand? "I give that record a nine, Dick, because I can ALMOST picture myself cutting a rug to it!"

Then there's the document's assertion that "dance halls" subject their surrounding communities to "excessive noise, traffic and littering." As free-speech attorney David Wasserman told Orlando Weekly, such problems already are covered by existing noise ordinances and littering laws. And anyway, why single out one type of business for its potential to draw customers? There's already a term on the books for endeavors that do not engender traffic. That term is "Chapter 11."

Perhaps wisely, Orange County did not alert Orlando Weekly to Crotty's Feb. 5 news conference. (Too bad; we could have brought along some nice glow sticks.) Nor did Crotty's staff make him available to answer our questions the following day. That, too, was perhaps understandable, given the number of inquiries that suddenly began pouring into Crotty's office seeking justification for his and Beary's bizarre stance.

The measure is scheduled to be considered by the Orange County Commission on Feb. 13, but with any luck, the court of public opinion will finish it off before then. Indeed, Wasserman says the ordinance may constitute a proposal aimed at one specific company. In most civilized communities, this sort of harassment is the province of organized crime, but leave it to Orange County to be behind the learning curve.

Among those expected to vote in favor of the measure is County Commissioner Clarence Hoenstine. "If it was up to me, I wouldn't allow any of these clubs," Hoenstine told the Sentinel. "But I know we live in a free society." Regrets, he's had a few; but then again, too few to mention.

No, officer, we wasn't dancin'. We was just a-singin'.


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