Troubled hotel stays open during appeal
By ANDREW MEACHAM
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Empress Motel will remain open a while longer.
Circuit Judge David Demers has granted a stay of an order by the Nuisance Abatement Board closing 23 motel rooms at 1503 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. N for six months as a public nuisance. Owner Manjin N. Jethwa has until the board's Jan. 8 meeting to plan how he will minimize problems that led to about a dozen drug or prostitution arrests since July. Jethwa is also appealing fines and investigative costs levied against him totaling $5,876.93. Since the original city action, there have been no further arrests at the hotel.
An appeal is expected to last several months. Tampa attorney Daniel Mitchell, who represents Jethwa, said that to shut down the motel during the appeal would irreparably hurt his client.
"What is he going to do (with the property)?" Mitchell said, paraphrasing a ruling on a similar case. "Is he going to transform it into a shopping mall, or into a gas station? He can't do that."
City Attorney Milton Galbraith countered that the board had allowed 10 apartment units to remain open, and said that no rule prevents the city from closing a property while an appeal is pending.
In last Tuesday's hearing, Demers questioned attorneys for both sides about the effect of the motel's closing on Jethwa pending his appeal, and what legal remedies Jethwa or the city might have. Demers contacted attorneys Friday with his decision to stay the board's order, effectively allowing the Empress to remain open at least for another two weeks.
The city anticipated Jethwa's emergency motion, said Scott Headley, an attorney for the city, and had delayed enforcing the order until a judge could rule. "I'm not surprised," Headley said of Demers' ruling. "It's definitely in line with what the judge had suggested during the hearing."
A handful of neighborhood leaders attended the hearing last week. One of those, Clifford Holensworth, president of the Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association, said he is sending a letter to residents living within two blocks of the Empress, warning them of activities alleged to have taken place on the property. Several of these cases involve arrests of motel guests since July on charges of possession or sales of crack cocaine.
"I understand the legal issue," Holensworth said. "But allowing the motel to remain open, under the assumption that the owner will adhere to the law -- that's an assumption."
Jethwa was arrested in October, and charged with profiting from prostitution and operating a public nuisance. He has pleaded not guilty to both charges.
According to the city, an undercover police officer in September agreed with Jethwa to rent a room for $20 an hour, after having told Jethwa that "she was new to town and that she had been referred to her as someone who didn't interfere with working girls."
Ingrid Comberg attended the hearing on behalf of the MLK Business District, and said that more than the Empress is at stake.
"The innocent business owners surrounding this property definitely have lost if this stays open," Comberg said.
Peter Sharp, president of the 34th Street Business Association and a Days Inn owner, said his group has supported the Empress closing "110 percent."
"Everybody's entitled to due process of law," Sharp said of Demers' decision. "But as soon as those rights have run their course, I hope the city can take some action against this hotel."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
South Pinellas desks