Wednesday, July 7, 2004 | 11:03 a.m.
TONOPAH -- Nye County's brothels will survive without being put to a popular vote, and the suggestive signs that caused a furor in Pahrump are coming down.
In a contentious session Tuesday, the county commission voted 3-2 not to put a question on the November ballot asking voters whether brothel prostitution should continue to be legal in Nye County, which has the state's largest concentration of brothels.
The commissioners also voted to have the district attorney formulate revisions to the ordinance that governs the brothels, citing concerns that it is vague on crucial questions of advertising and enforcement.
Commission Chairman Henry Neth alarmed the brothel industry last month when he put an item on the agenda that could have led to an outright ban by commission vote. He admitted on Tuesday that the move was a tactic to pressure brothel owner Joe Richards to remove signs at the gateway to Pahrump that show scantily clad women in suggestive poses.
"The whole issue was about the signs," Neth said in an interview after the vote. "I used the only legal tactic that I had to bring pressure to bear to get the signs down."
He added, "The issue was never the brothels. I did what every responsible elected official should do, which is get something done."
Under a compromise brokered by Reno-based brothel lobbyist George Flint, Richards on Tuesday had already removed two advertisements featuring naked women that adorned the outside of his Kingdom Gentlemen's Club, a castle-shaped structure that greets visitors to Pahrump as they enter on State Route 160.
The club, which features all-nude female dancers, has caused much anguish among Pahrump residents, who say Richards sold them a bill of goods when he promised to build a mere bar and restaurant on the site.
Flint said Richards had also "made arrangements" to remove two 50-foot-wide billboards along 160 and to tear down a small massage parlor on the Kingdom property. And Flint said he would continue to negotiate with Richards to get rid of several other billboards.
"What I've told the chairman (Neth) is that we've committed ourselves to working toward influencing Joe (Richards) so that there's less heat on the board (of commissioners)," Flint said.
Based on Flint's assurances, Neth told his fellow board members at the meeting that eliminating the brothels wouldn't be necessary.
But a vocal group of Pahrump residents who have rallied around the issue vowed to keep fighting to outlaw prostitution in one of its last legal havens. Nevada is the only state that allows legal brothels. The brothels are legal only in rural counties that approve them.
"We're disappointed, but it's not over yet," Pahrump resident Linda Chesmore said of the commission's failure to put the brothels up to a vote. Chesmore was one of seven religious women from Pahrump who made the three-and-a-half hour drive to Tonopah to make their voices heard by the commission in person.
Residents also attended the meeting in Pahrump via videoconference. Many at the Pahrump site spoke in favor of keeping the brothels, however.
"I think we should just leave them alone," resident George Gingell told the commission from Pahrump. "If you don't want to live next to a pig farm, don't buy there. If you don't want to live by the airport, don't buy there."
But those who oppose the brothels vowed to continue their crusade. "We are not going to stop here," said Anna Cadigan, who has helped circulate petitions calling for a brothel ban.
"We are going to be a consistent voice," added Joanne Bainbridge. "This is a call for people who do know Christ, the believers, to rise up" against the brothels.
"It's time to take a stand in our community for what's right," she said.
In opposing a ballot measure, commissioners Neth, Midge Carver and Joni Eastley said any referendum should come from citizens in the form of a petition. It is too late now for that, so would-be petitioners will probably have to wait two years, although commissioners noted a special election could be called.
Commissioners Candice Trummell and Patricia Cox voted in favor of putting the issue on the ballot. Trummell, who proposed the move, said afterward she was "dismayed, but not surprised" by the item's defeat.
"I certainly wasn't surprised after I found out that behind-closed-doors negotiations were going on with certain members of the commission" and the brothel industry, Trummell said.
Trummell said she personally opposes prostitution, but "On a commissioner level all I want is to see what the community feels about the issue."
Many paint the conflict over brothels as pitting Nye's old-timers, who value the lingering Old West ethos of rural Nevada, against a bevy of puritanical, family-oriented newcomers.
The county's population has more than doubled since 1980, to more than 36,000, with most of the increase coming in Pahrump, which is increasingly a bedroom community for commuters to Las Vegas who want to raise children away from Sin City's tawdry displays.
"I specifically moved out from Las Vegas to move into a safe place for my children," said Pahrump resident Susette Vitto, who also spoke at the meeting.
She told the commission, "I have six children and I've got to drive down the street and I have to tell my children to look at the floor" when passing the nude club.
She added, "How do you tell your 11-year-old that there is a girl that will do that for money?"
The next step for Nye County's brothels will be the county's revision of the brothel ordinance, which Deputy District Attorney Ron Kent told the commission his office would try to do within 90 days.
While everyone involved wants a tighter rein on advertising related to the brothels, Kent told the commission that might be difficult because of First Amendment guarantees on commercial speech.
The offending signs in Pahrump do not directly advertise Richards' two brothels, the Cherry Patch and Mabel's Ranch, but rather the nude club and a "brothel art museum" and "bathhouse" that are attached to the brothels.
The revised ordinance will also likely raise the fees the brothels pay to county coffers, which have not been hiked for 12 years. Flint said brothel owners were amenable to an increase.
And County Sheriff Tony DeMeo said he would call for putting more teeth in the ordinance so that law enforcement can more closely monitor what goes on in the brothels. "There are so many gray areas there (in the ordinance) that they (owners) don't even know what they can do and can't do," DeMeo told the commission.
In March, DeMeo conducted what he said was the first inspection of the brothels in at least 12 years and found them all to be in compliance with regulations. One brothel had a fire-code violation that was quickly fixed, he said.