Anis Ben Harzallah made a mistake when he opened his Tempe hookah lounge early in 2007.
Either through inattention or just plain confusion, Harzallah obtained a city use permit that only allowed his customers to buy flavored tobacco and water pipes, not to actually use a hookah in the lounge. As a result, Harzallah opened himself to attack from critics who don’t want to see tobacco smoked anywhere, and certainly weren’t happy about such a business opening across a busy intersection from Tempe Union High School.
Then, Harzallah compounded his mistake by continuing to operate as if everything was normal while he sought to get the correct city permit. Admittedly, a small business owner sometimes can be trapped between complying with a bizarre maze of city regulations and keeping the business afloat. But Harzallah should have known that the nature of his business — smoking tobacco in a device sometimes used for illicit drugs — would subject him to extra scrutiny in our culture. He simply couldn’t afford to give anyone the impression he was defying the law.
Still, Tribune writer Mike Branom reported that both a city hearing officer and the Development Review Commission agreed Harzallah’s mistakes were minor enough that he deserved an amended permit. These dispassionate experts refused to be swayed by the disingenuous argument from critics that supporting a legal business meant the city doesn’t care about the health of teenagers.
Elected leaders also should rise above unfavorable perceptions and emotional manipulation to act with clear-headed respect for individual rights and divergent viewpoints. The Tempe City Council failed that test when it revoked Harzallah’s use permit Thursday.
Harzallah has paid plenty for his errors; he estimates $15,000 in legal fees before Thursday’s council meeting. And he will pay more as he has pledged to keep fighting for his business.
Which bring us to the question of how much will Tempe taxpayers have to spend to defend the council’s own mistake?