The debate over live music continues in New Orleans. The latest volley was lobbed by Kermit Ruffins, New Orleans’ premiere jazz trumpeter, who presumably needs no further introduction. From his Facebook page, Ruffins has announced a meeting this Wednesday to discuss “a plan of [action] to stop the city from taking live entertainment away from small clubs.”
Ruffin’s announcement coincided roughly with three developments: 1) Ruffin’s Mother-In-Law Lounge received its rezoning and permitting for live music; 2) Mimi’s in the Marigny canceled its live music schedule; and, 3) Siberia lounge announced it would be resuming live music in October with obscenely expensive one-shot event permits.
Accordingly, Ruffins is sitting pretty. Everybody else, not so much.
Now, Ruffins has gone through the wringer in his efforts to reopen the Mother-in-Law Lounge as a live music venue, but after approximately a year-and-a-half of wrangling with the city, the Mother-in-Law is now legal again. Previously, the Mother-in-Law operated as a nonconforming use, but that lapsed after the iconic lounge closed for more than six months.
Unlike most people, Ruffins has the clout and the name-recognition to push through a rezoning despite the city’s concerns over “spot” zoning, where individual properties are rezoned ad-hoc based on lobbying from business owners and developers. If you ask any official about spot zoning, they’re against it as a matter of principle.
Despite his ordeal, Ruffins at least succeeded. That’s more than other business owners can say. Many don’t even try, instead opting to operate under the radar and pray they don’t get caught in one of the stepped-up “enforcement sweeps” from the Landrieu Administration. Others shutter their doors to live music, usually due to threats from the City Attorney’s office.
Some have called these shutdowns “voluntary.” The idea is that the city is only threatening action in connection with a sweep, but not taking immediate action. Folks, that makes these shutdowns about as voluntary as any other action taken in response to threat of legal sanction, which is to say not voluntary at all. It’s as voluntary as any action taken when you have a gun to your head. At the end of the day, all government threats are really the threat of force.
Mayor Landrieu has been asked about the live music crackdown on multiple occasions, and his response has been to go into “stump-speech” mode and recite his past efforts on behalf of the music community, essentially dodging the question. Although he is the chief executive in the city, he behaves aloof as to the current crackdown.
This is insulting to the collective intelligence of the citizens of New Orleans. Anybody who has taken a basic civics class understands the doctrine of separation of powers. The legislature, or the city council, makes the laws. The executive, or the mayor, enforces the laws. Thus, if you have any complaints about the way laws are being enforced, the buck stops with Mayor Landrieu.
This is not to say Mayor Landrieu has total discretion, but he has a great deal of discretion in creating policies regarding the enforcement of, say, the requirement of a mayoralty permit for live music. For example, Landrieu could easily belay any enforcement action against music venues pending applications for permits and/or rezoning. However, he hasn’t done so.
While the laws need to change, that will take time that existing venues don’t have. If Landrieu is truly a friend to live music as he claims, he needs to take the reins and end the war on live music that his administration started.
And if he doesn’t, he now has Kermit Ruffins to contend with.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.