Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2014

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Neon Eden:

Let the Clark County Commission make the Strip safer, but leave the entrepreneurs alone

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Steve Marcus

Necessary evil? The Clark County Commission should be careful about how it cleans up the Strip.

The Clark County Commission has seemed lately like the Committee of “Get Off My Lawn!” They recently banned pets on the Strip. And they’ve thrown some big fines at homeowners for violating the so-called “Party House Ordinance,” which restricts people from using their properties as short-term rentals, which is supposed to save neighbors the nuisance of raucous parties in the neighborhoods.

Now the commission, upon recommendations from a “working group” of Strip casino types and county staff, will “clean up the Strip.”

After that, perhaps they’ll move on to eradicating lust and greed.

To be fair, Commissioner Steve Sisolak proposed the group after a spate of five homicides in less than two weeks last summer, and he can hardly be faulted for his concern.

And, of course, we should always make sure our most important commercial district is safe and as free of trash—meaning refuse—as possible given the circumstances. The neverending stream of people and alcohol tends to make a lot of garbage, while sidewalks that are far too narrow in places lead to bunching of crowds that could conceivably be unsafe.

So the working group made a series of proposals, including more frequent emptying of trash cans; increasing sidewalk cleaning from three to four times per week; adding more police officers; and establishing a night court to quickly adjudicate common Strip crimes (and serve as a real life platform for a future sitcom/reality show?).

Some of these are bread-and-butter governing. I can’t believe we need a blue ribbon panel to tell us we shouldn’t have overflowing trash cans or sticky sidewalks. If government can’t do small things right, no one will ever trust it to do big things again.

Other proposals are more concerning, especially to civil libertarians who believe this is yet another attempt in the county’s longstanding and quixotic battle against the First Amendment. These include establishing a “time, place and manner” code to restrict some First Amendment activities; surveillance cameras; ordinances to prevent people from performing or panhandling on the pedestrian bridges.

You may despise certain practitioners of the First Amendment—including me—but that doesn’t give you the right to restrict us. I’m speaking, of course, of the loathsome handbillers, the people who press cards advertising “escorts” into the hands of passing tourists, who inevitably toss the cards on the sidewalk.

Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel of ACLU of Nevada, said recently while appearing with me on KNPR’s State of Nevada that he was distressed by the roster of the county’s working group and the tenor of the conversation.

“I’ve been litigating this since 1997, the attempt to control what is said and passed out on the Strip. And I was disappointed because walking in there after all these years, all the litigation, all the money the county has spent losing this litigation, this particular group starts off saying, ‘How do we get rid of these people?’”

And now it’s not just the handbillers. It’s also street performers, including talented musicians and contortionists and less-talented people in superhero costumes.

Cracking down on unlicensed vendors, such as those selling bottles of water out of coolers, is a safety rather than a First Amendment issue, but I still find it depressing that crushing these plucky entrepreneurs is considered such a priority.

Clark County Commission Chairwoman Susan Brager, also appearing on the same NPR show, worries about the safety of some of the street performing acts, as well as crowds congregating on narrow sidewalks, causing people to step into the street to get by. Her concern, she says, is cleanliness and safety.

I think we can all live with that. We don’t want to scare off the bovine herds of tourists on whom we depend for economic survival.

The Clark County Commission should tread carefully, however. And not just to prevent yet another loss to the ACLU.

The Las Vegas Strip is a unique American streetscape, an incalculable asset because of how it is viewed by the world. It’s a symbol of American freedom, of liberation from dumb, arbitrary rules, of our God-given right to be idiots. That’s a big reason people come here. Not for a Prada store or some star chef. But because they can do more or less what they want.

It’s one of the weirdest places in America. Let’s keep it that way.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at [email protected] His Neon Eden radio show airs Mondays at 8 a.m. on 91.5 FM.

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