DENIED: West Homewood has for years been the home of budget motels — some old and some new–clustered near its two Interstate ramps. In tonight’s case, a majority of the council agreed not to renew the license for a declining former Holiday Inn on Oxmoor Road whose owners were accused of tolerating a host of crimes among its guests ranging from drug peddling to prostitution to even murder, thereby becoming a public nuisance. “Hoteliers” Dinesh Patel and sons Sean and Miheer stood for ninety minutes with their attorney refuting claims they ignored open drug use and prostitution in their guest rooms, didn’t cooperate with police, didn’t attend police-organized meetings to improve motel conditions at the Oxmoor exit, didn’t maintain working surveillance cameras, allowed minors to rent rooms and generally contributed to the climate of vice that brought them before the council. Even members of the council who ultimately voted against denying the license renewal (Hallman, Wallis, Reid) expressed disbelief that the owners didn’t take measures sooner to improve the property.
Their turn to speak came after Homewood police chief Jim Roberson spent more than an hour laying out the evidence–i.e., a binder with records of 241 separate offenses pulled from June 15, 2011 to Feb. 13, 2013. Roberson summarized those offenses without acknowledging which were felony complaints or how many were turned into cases and prosecuted. However, he was careful to note that some complaints he was counting had been dropped by the complainants and that many of the department’s calls at the hotel were on its own initiative; for example, police routinely patrolled the parking lot looking for expired tags, then checked for outstanding warrants and, if found, would make the arrest inside the hotel. These warrants could range from a failure to appear in court to more serious crimes, Roberson said.
Of the listed offenses, 20 were for prostitution, or “for conducting business without a license,” an easier crime to prove. These arrests also were a result of their own investigations, as officers would call suspicious escort ads on Craigslist or on backpage.com. “Dates” made by text or online would often be set for 260 Oxmoor Road, he said, where police would meet for the arrest. Thirty-three incidents were for drugs; two calls were suicides–one by gunfire and one by hanging. A shooting March 3, 2013, during a stand-off between two groups of juveniles killed a 17-year-old boy.
Roberson accompanied these statistics with anecdotes of problem employees and customers, an accusation that the Patels charged $3,400 to a customer’s credit card (Miheer said it was a mistake, and corrected), a stolen gun from a room that ended up in Tarrant, and a domestic violence call involving a hotel maintenance man.
The Patels refuted or explained each claim, pointing out that they are also a Homewood family that didn’t condone some of the behavior they necessarily see from guests at a budget motel. Miheer Patel said he had never met Chief Roberson before tonight, but had a good relationship with several beat officers, whom he named, adding that they hadn’t been allowed to come speak on his behalf. He said the hotel in January 2013 purchased 51 surveillance cameras, which unfortunately weren’t installed until June, after the March shooting. Their answers nevertheless painted a picture of a lax business that chronically cut corners to save money, took few security measures and allowed almost anyone to rent a room, no questions asked. Under council questioning, it was revealed that a side door to the hotel didn’t remain locked; only 78 rooms of 160 were rentable at any given time, with 25-40 of those rented out per day.
A Voluminous Amount of Hearsay
In responding to the charges, the Patels’ attorney Josh Watkins argued that the binder of documents and anecdotes were “a voluminous amount of hearsay,” with crimes such as petty theft occurring no more frequently at the hotel than anywhere else. The Patels themselves were also victims of such crimes.
He said that the number of incidents should be considered according to the number of rooms and length of time. However, Watkins then stepped back, allowing the Patels to plead their own case, and plead they did as the session neared its close and council questions became more strident. Asked repeatedly how they allowed the motel to fall into such a decline, the Patels promised to hire more security guards, raise the room rents, create a fund to pay city police officers for more patrols, and attend quarterly meetings with other managers to improve conditions at area hotels. Miheer Patel went on to guarantee 110% cooperation with the police and council and predicted the number of police calls would dramatically decline with planned improvements.
To this, Mr. Kendrick, the city attorney, said the city had pulled records on all the area hotels, and America’s Best Value Inn & Suites was the worst, implying there may be more such renewal cases on the horizon. He also warned the Patels that they were licensed as a hotel, not a boarding house, and guests could not lawfully stay for than 30 days at a time, as had been the practice.
Six members of the audience then spoke on the record at the end of the hearing. One resident said the city should tackle the issue of all the aging budget motels, not just the one owned by the Patel family. Two residents said the hotel was beyond any hope of improvement, and should be closed down. A long-term hotel guest spoke in the Patels’ defense, saying they were being blamed for the poor behavior of a certain cross-section of people, which was beyond their control. A friend of the Patels from Shelby County asked the council not to solve the hotel problem by “creating an empty building.” Finally, Homewood police Lt. Atkinson, a resident of West Homewood, reiterated that the Patels didn’t attend past meetings arranged to improve hotels around the Oxmoor exit, although he admitted he let the owner of a competing hotel handle the meeting notifications.
The majority of the council was unmoved by the Patels’ assurances when Mr. Limbaugh asked for a motion. With nothing but silence from the members, Mr. Kendrick advised that the council could vote to continue the hearing, to renew, not to renew, or anything in between. That said, Mr. Moody moved to not grant a license renewal, seconded by Mr. McClusky. Joining the vote not to renew were Mr. Hawkins, Mr. Laws, Mr. Wright and Mr. Limbaugh. Mr. Thames and Mr. Jones were absent.
The hearing adjourned at approximately 9:30 p.m.
The Patels will consider appealing the decision in circuit court, their attorney said.
Voting against a motion not to renew the license: Mr. Hallman, Ms. Reid and Ms. Wallis. Mr. Hallman said he wouldn’t comment on his vote until he learned the status of an appeal. Awaiting responses from Reid and Wallis.
Members present: Michael Hallman, Fred Hawkins, Vance Moody, Patrick McClusky, Jenifer Champ Wallis, Heather Reid, Richard Laws, Peter Wright and council president Bruce Limbaugh. Also present was Homewood’s mayor Scott McBrayer.
Members absent: Britt Thames and Walter Jones.
Staff present: City clerk Linda Cook, city attorney Mike Kendrick, mayor’s chief of staff J. J. Bischoff. A court reporter was present to record the proceedings.
Audience attendance: 22.