Permit problems: Kermit Ruffins and the live music crackdown


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The crowd inside Kermit Ruffins Speakeasy discusses live entertainment permits with Scott Hutcheson.
  • The crowd inside Kermit Ruffins' Speakeasy discusses live entertainment permits with Scott Hutcheson.

"This is getting crazy," said Kermit Ruffins, standing in his Basin Street bar Speakeasy and wearing an apron and red chef's jacket (he was in the middle of cooking lunch). Ruffins successfully completed a permit process that would allow live music at Ernie K-Doe's Mother-in-Law Lounge, despite acquiring the lease two years ago. On Friday, Sept. 21, Ruffins posted on Facebook in response to the "crazy" — the suspension of live music at venues across town, more recently at Mimi's in the Marigny to Siberia, which hasn't had a regular music schedule since July. Ruffins' post called to organize a meeting "to discuss a plan of action to stop the city from taking live entertainment away from small clubs."

Five days later, on Wednesday, Sept. 26, Ruffins took the microphone at his club, packed with musicians, artists, second-line paraders, venue owners, lawyers and music fans.

"I got real pissed and called a meeting," he said. His plan of action also proposed a citywide march on City Hall with members of the Rebirth Brass Band and the Marsalis family, among others, at 10 a.m. Oct. 24. Until then, Ruffins said, he'll hold weekly meetings at his club.

The meeting attempted a few things:

1. Call on City Hall to create a moratorium on enforcement of permits. Bernie Cyrus called for a 60 day moratorium on enforcement as a "time to comply." "We need to stay united," he said. "We're in the right here. It's culture first, not tourism."

2. Create a committee (without city government influence) to represent permitting concerns. "We need to define as a group what this is and what we want," said attorney Tim Kappel. "The city needs to provide a one-stop shop for licensing. ... Until then, what's the rush?"

When asked how many people the room are business owners, half the hands shot up.

Scott Hutcheson, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's advisor on cultural economy, was at the meeting. ("I got about 900 emails about it," he told Gambit.) He faced a loud but listening crowd.

"Our office does three things: we permit, we protect and we enforce," Hutcheson said.

Alex Fleming fired back, "What are you protecting us from, our culture? What's wrong with you people?"

When asked why the city is enforcing its permit ordinances before rolling out its "one-stop shop", Hutcheson said, "The process is going to be better and going to be faster. ... That's supposed to come out in October."

Gambit later asked Hutcheson if City Planning Commission staff will also be included in the conversation — along with Department of Revenue and Office of Safety and Permits staff. Hutcheson said, "They have to," adding that the city will plan to meet with businesses and artists during the moratorium to speed up the permit process.

A moratorium on enforcement, Hutcheson said, is up to city attorneys. "We'll figure out what the legal mechanism is for that," he said. "We're doing that today."

Meeting attendees also addressed noise ordinances — and the website — and the plan for a compromise on the enforcement of "bandit signs."

Aside from the loss of live music at venues across town, the respective musicians are losing work — and support organizations are struggling to keep up. Sweet Home New Orleans director Suzanne Mobley said the organization has seen a 300 percent increase in people seeking aid. That's about 12-15 people a week (versus a previous three or four people) and round-the-clock phone calls. Mobley said some artists are struggling to pay rent or are two months late on mortgage payments — the loss of their livelihoods in New Orleans, she said, has made them consider moving elsewhere.


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