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Rehoboth gay-owned restaurant alleges police harassment

Venue cites recurring officer visits during drag brunches

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Port 251 in Rehoboth Beach hosts drag shows that are being monitored by local police. (Washington Blade photo)

Owners of Port 251, a gay-owned bar and restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Del., are accusing local police of discrimination and harassment, claiming on-duty officers regularly sit outside the venue for the duration of its popular drag brunches.

Tony Sacco, an owner of Port 251, said police began to routinely visit the venue during drag performances because of alleged noise complaints, at times measuring the volume of performances from outside and fining the restaurant for violating the city’s noise ordinance.

Joe Maggio, co-owner, alleged that this response from city police began after the venue received noise complaints in 2020, and continued until the restaurant was no longer considered in violation months later. Maggio also alleged that in 2020 city officials criticized the police department’s repeated stationing of officers outside the venue, yet, since the start of the summer, the venue has again been confronted with a police presence.

Sacco and Maggio emphasized that the restaurant has worked to comply with the city’s noise ordinance, reducing the volume of its music and directly reaching out to the chief of police and city commissioner, but later received complaints from officers over patrons clapping too loudly and drag artists performing on the restaurant’s patio.

“I’m not sure who it’s bothering at 12 o’clock in the afternoon,” Sacco said. “They weren’t coming because of a call at that point.” Sacco pointed to other local establishments having speakers or performances outside their venues, at times even extending onto the city’s boardwalk, but not facing the same police response.

“The police officers are apologetic when they arrive,” said Maggio, noting that, despite numerous conversations with clients and local community members, he has not heard of any ongoing noise complaints regarding the performances.

But Lt. Jamie Riddle, professional standards unit commander of the Rehoboth Police Department, said that officers are not placed outside of events “unless there is a public safety concern.” 

Riddle added that the agency has begun to meet with the restaurant’s owners and “proactively investigate the noise associated with the Friday and Sunday performances” — not necessarily in immediate response to a public complaint.

Still, Riddle noted that the agency’s response follows a string of noise complaints from the local community received by the city’s dispatch center beginning June 19, as well as a formal complaint filed with the Office of the City Manager on July 21 — a record of complaints that Riddle claims other local businesses with drag performances have not generated.

According to Riddle, Port 251 is currently being investigated concerning its adherence to two city ordinances: the maximum noise levels ordinance — §189-4 — which limits how much sound an individual or business can emit beyond private property; and the use restrictions ordinance — §270-19 — which prevents live entertainment on dining patios. Maggio noted he believes that the venue is now in compliance with the maximum noise level ordinance.

Riddle added that, with the visible presence of officers during the Friday and Sunday performances, the dispatch office has received “no associated noise complaints” from the local community. However, according to Riddle, the first time officers were not present — last Friday — a noise complaint was received.

“Our objective is not enforcement, but rather compliance,” Riddle said. “If our presence is the mechanism needed to achieve compliance then that is our obligation to the community.”

Regardless, for Port 251 the ongoing presence of police officers “sitting outside for the entire show” during drag events has affected the experience of patrons and performers alike, Sacco added.

“Patrons feel uncomfortable, some get up and leave,” he explained. “It’s unfortunate because we’re just trying to make a living. But, even more so, the drag queens are just trying to make a living and they’re feeling targeted.”

But Riddle maintained that the nature of the event is “irrelevant” to the agency’s response.

“The members of our agency serve our residents, businesses, and visitors alike by responding to calls for service and through proactive police work,” Riddle said. “When presented with a concern from a member of our community it is our obligation and duty to thoroughly investigate and assess the concern.”

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Rehoboth Beach

Questions remain after Rehoboth Beach marijuana ban

Prohibits smoking, selling weed within town limits

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Rehoboth officials voted to ban smoking and selling marijuana within town limits. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Want to light up in Rehoboth Beach, Del.? If you want to smoke a joint, you’re out of luck.
Rehoboth Beach’s mayor and Board of Commissioners voted last week to ban the smoking of cannabis on public property within the city’s 1.6-square-mile limits – despite the possession of cannabis being legal in Delaware. One commissioner, Tim Bennett, abstained, while all others voted for the ban. The city took advantage of a provision that allows local governments to ban its sale.

The mayor and commissioners cited cannabis’ health benefits as the primary reason, noting that the Food and Drug Administration has only approved cannabis-derived medications for rare seizures and researchers’ warnings that cannabis use or exposure can harm adolescents’ brain development, harming their memory, learning coordination, reaction time, and judgement. Commissioner Jay Lagree added a comment from a resident as further proof: A mall in Williamsburg, she said, had turned into a no-go zone for her after a cannabis store set up shop. Now, it’s filled with “unsavory” people, Lagree summarized.

After banning smoking marijuana in public places, the Rehoboth Beach Board of Commissioners and mayor Stan Mills went ahead with a ban on recreational cannabis sales in Rehoboth. Dewey Beach and Ocean City have already banned recreational cannabis stores, the mayor pointed out, so it is important to follow suit.

“I would not want them to be able to say, ‘Oh just go a quarter mile north to Rehoboth Beach and they’ll take care of your needs,’” he said.

“Raise parking to $10 an hour,” Bennett, the commissioner, joked.

“Outside the dispensaries,” Mills said and laughed.

A cannabis business manager couldn’t convince the officials otherwise. Columbia Care General Manager Laurie Golem said that the business has served 15,000 patients up and down Delaware and provides 100 jobs for Delawareans.

She also claimed three quarters of consumers buy cannabis to improve their health, treating disorders like insomnia and anxiety and providing pain relief. The Blade was unable to find that study, but a study commissioned by cannabis retailer Curaleaf found that around half of all adults polled had used cannabis before. Of those that had used cannabis before, it reported, more than 90% would consider using it for wellness and health. The study polled 2,000 Americans, though it is not clear how respondents were selected. It did not respond to the Blade’s questions.

But can the city enforce the ban on smoking weed? When a resident asked that question at a July meeting, he did not get a direct answer. Commissioner Toni Sharp noted that the city already has enforcement issues, but the new city manager was stepping up to the plate to fix it.

Commissioner Sharp signaled tepid opposition to the bill, saying she didn’t want to pass any legislation that burdened a police department missing half of its cadets, four dispatchers, and three full-time officers.

“I believe we have our hands full here in Rehoboth with issues that we would like to improve and we may steer clear of this,” she said.

Still, about a month later, she voted to pass the ban on smoking weed in public places. After publication, the city told the Blade that it had arrested or cited 159 people for cannabis possession since January 2021. It did not provide statistics on the number of people written up for smoking cannabis or tobacco on public property.

Adding to the challenge of enforcing the city code might be the Delaware Supreme Court’s 2021 decision in Juliano v. State that the smell of cannabis is not sufficient cause to arrest a person on suspicion of violating the law. Whether this applies to this situation isn’t clear, though, because police are already banned from arresting people for civil violations like smoking weed in a no-smoking area. Rehoboth’s police department first told the Blade through a city spokesperson that it was unfamiliar with the case and the city’s police chief did not respond to the Blade’s call. After publication, Lt. Jaime Riddle said in a statement that the case doesn’t apply because the case only applies to arrests, not stops.

“The odor of marijuana coming from a person who is smoking it, remains probable cause to conduct a stop as it remains illegal to smoke marijuana in public,” Riddle wrote.

People who violate smoking bans are charged $25 under current city laws, but if they challenge their conviction in court and lose, they are on the hook for $75 – the city tacks on another $50 for court fees. The city could even seek further punishment for the person, city law states.

The sale of alcohol and tobacco, though, remain legal despite mounds of evidence about their harm, including risks of cancer, heart disease, and more. When Commissioner Tim Bennet rhetorically asked whether the town would ban alcohol and tobacco stores (it can’t), Lagree joked that the city “would love to, but it’s probably not going to happen.”

The ban on cannabis has happened, though. Rehoboth officials weren’t swayed by cannabis activist Zoë Patchell, who said the ban would at best starve the city of much-needed tax money, or at worst shove demand underground.

“Banning legal licensed regulated cannabis businesses within town limits will make it less safe for both communities and consumers and shuts the door on economic agricultural and small business development, ensuring that those opportunities remain in the hands of the illicit market,” the registered lobbyist told the commissioners and mayor.

The law does allow Rehoboth’s handful of CBD shops to do business, so the ban won’t force any businesses to close. Still, the law passed with little fanfare. Not even Patchell’s group, the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, posted anything on social media. The commission went on with its daily business instead.

“Thank you all for being here and speaking up,” Mills, the mayor, said. “With that we’re going to move on to the third item of old business.”

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Rehoboth Beach

Meet CAMP Rehoboth’s new executive director

Kim Leisey says LGBTQ community center is ‘in a really good place’

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Kim Leisey is CAMP Rehoboth’s new executive director. (Photo by Tim Ford)

The new CAMP Rehoboth executive director is no stranger to Rehoboth Beach, Del. Kim Leisey has been coming here since the 1990s to find community among other queer people at a time when they weren’t accepted in society.

Leisey’s chosen family resides here — a group of close female friends she calls her “tribunal.” The pandemic brought her life into sharper focus, as it did for so many others. Her wife, Kathy Solano, retired in March 2020 — into the throws of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were out taking a walk with our dog,” Leisey said. “And I just said to her, ‘When do you want to move to the beach? ‘And she’s like, ‘now.’”

And so the two moved to the beach, Leisey still in her job as senior associate vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. When Leisey heard about the job opening for executive director at the storied CAMP Rehoboth organization that had helped so many like her, she jumped at the chance.

Now, two weeks into the job, she’s beginning to sketch out her priorities: Caring for LGBTQ+ seniors, engaging with youth, and partnering with corporate sponsors for community services and huge community events like the Sun Festival this Labor Day weekend.

Amid all the events and activities of the busy summer season, CAMP Rehoboth remains under an investigation by the Delaware Department of Justice. Former Executive Director David Mariner reported possible fake purchases and reimbursements before resigning and founding his own LGBTQ organization, Sussex Pride. The department is investigating $86,000 in payments to an employee, according to CAMP Rehoboth’s 2021 audited financial statements. Leisey declined to comment on the investigation but said it has not affected the organization’s finances.

“We’re financially healthy. The community respects and trusts us,” she said. “We have lots of businesses that are involved in sponsoring events and resources and services. So I think we’re in a really good place.”

Leisey said there is no competition or animosity between the two organizations, as did Mariner in a 2022 interview with the Blade.

“I enjoyed my time at CAMP Rehoboth,” he said. “I certainly hope there’s opportunities for us to collaborate.”

Leisey steps into her role as executive director of CAMP Rehoboth at a time when culture wars rage and many conservative politicians have set their sights on rolling back transgender rights. The wars have largely passed by solid-blue Delaware – the American Civil Liberties Union anti-trans bill tracker does not list any bills in Delaware.

Leisey, who is a cisgender woman, has been on a journey of her own about transgender issues. She founded the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Faculty Staff Association in 2009, which was later renamed the LGBTQ+ Faculty Association.

“You know, 30 years ago, there wasn’t much information,” she said. “And so reading, experiencing, talking with people going to workshops, conferences, has all been part of my personal journey as it relates to trans folks.”

Leisey leaves the University of Maryland Baltimore County as it continues to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic, with both the lowest number of full-time undergraduate students since at least 2013 and a booming full-time graduate student population, the highest by far since at least 2013. The university defied predictions of slow enrollment growth along with other universities in the University of Maryland University System.

She says experience in administration at UMBC, working with not only students, but parents, family, staff, and faculty and her Ph.D. in human development lends itself well to her new job.

“I worked shoulder to shoulder with lots of diversity around age, to provide a campus environment that was such that students could do well academically and get their degree,” she said. “What I’m taking away that I’m bringing to CAMP is, we’ve got to spend time with our youth, and we’ve got to spend time understanding what their needs and their desires are, especially as it relates to our programs and services.”

Murray Archibald and Steve Elkins founded CAMP Rehoboth after heterosexual residents pushed back against the increasing prominence of gay and lesbian people in Rehoboth and the two started the organization after the Rehoboth Homeowner Association loudly opposed the vibe the queer community had created, pointing to noise, traffic, and parking as problems, CAMP Rehoboth writes in its history. The city soon voted to ban bars not connected to restaurants, spelling the end for bars including disco bar the Strand.

So the two founded CAMP Rehoboth — an acronym for “Creating A More Positive” Rehoboth — and conducted trainings, met with local leaders, and others to support the burgeoning queer population.

Leisey says she wants to tap into the entire Rehoboth community now.

“The artists, the musicians, the intellects, the poets, the scientists, I mean, retiring into this community in Rehoboth has been really eye opening, and seeing the human capital and resources here, and that folks realized this in spite of the oppression and the stress of being queer, LGBTQ, in sometimes in some careers that were not very friendly,” she said. “And so the human spirit in this area is pretty amazing. And this is what I love about CAMP.”

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Rehoboth Beach

Rehoboth’s Gallery 50 to host shows by two gay artists

Work of Gary Fisher, Jason Wright on display this summer

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From left, Gary Fisher and Jason Wright.

Two talented gay artists will showcase their work at Gallery 50 on Wilmington Avenue in Rehoboth Beach. Gary Fisher’s show will open on Aug. 11 and Jason Wright’s will follow opening on Sept. 1.

Fisher is now a local, living in Rehoboth Beach, which is where he does most of his work. His studio has won a prestigious International Design Award in Architecture, Building and Structure Design. He said, “I began painting over 40 years ago, taking a painting class on a whim, and quickly becoming passionate about my newly discovered talent and prolific with this ‘hobby.’ It created a whole separate life from my ‘day’ job as a trial attorney with the U.S. Justice Department.”

Since the 1990s, Fisher has been active in both the Rehoboth Beach and D.C. art communities. He has had shows at the Blue Moon, participated with a small group of artists in CAMP Rehoboth fundraising events, and has been active in the Rehoboth Art League. He has had local gallery representation since 2008.

Prior to moving his studio to Rehoboth in 2015, he shared space in D.C. on 14th Street, N.W., with several talented gay artists including Jason Wright, Glenn Fry, and Brian Petro. Their studio became a meeting and organizing spot for a fledgling group of Dupont and Logan Circle artists. They, along with the very talented Sondra Arkin, were founders and active members of the dynamic Mid-City Artists Group in D.C.

Fisher told the Blade, “I currently paint with oil and my artwork ranges from the textural abstract landscape work that has been the focus of my major recent work, to brilliantly colored still life paintings and figurative paintings. My paintings reflect my highly individualized vision of the scenery or subject matter that surrounds me in my gardens and studio, as well as those that I experience in my adventurous travels with my husband and friends. Color dominates my canvases.” Some of Gary’s work can be seen at fishergallery.com.

Jason Wright in his own words is a ‘military brat’ who has lived in many places including, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, Utah, and Hawaii. He spent his teen years immersed in the D.C. skateboard and music scene with his late brother. Wright said after his brother was killed, he moved to Utah to become a sponsored skateboarder and snowboarder. He became well respected in the back country snowboarding community, and co-founded one of the oldest tattoo shops in Salt Lake City. He then moved to Kauai to chase waves, as he says, and came to terms with being gay. In 2008 he moved back to D.C. to become a graphic designer and met Gary Fisher, who became a mentor to him. His career took various turns and among other pursuits in 2022 went to Arizona to work as a sky diving instructor for the military.

He says his current work is called “Ephemeral Memoirs.” He went on to say, “In my artistic practice, I explore the concept of memory and its transient nature through the series titled ‘Ephemeral Memoirs.’ Inspired by the fleeting moments that shape our lives, I aim to capture the essence of these ephemeral experiences and transform them into visual narratives. Memory is a delicate and elusive phenomenon, constantly evolving and subject to distortion. Through my work, I seek to preserve these fleeting memories, allowing them to transcend time and space.”

Wright is represented by galleries in New York, D.C., Rehoboth and Alexandria, Va. Some of his body of work can be seen at Jason Wright Creative.

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