Political Notebook: Leno threatens audit of ABC
by Matthew S. Bajko
The ongoing feud between San Francisco late-night denizens and the state agency tasked with overseeing businesses with liquor licenses could heat up should state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) proceed with pushing for an audit of the department.
The openly gay lawmaker indicated this week he is prepared to seek a full accounting of the activities of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which is now headed by former Vacaville City Councilman Steve Hardy, whose resume includes a five-year stint as a San Francisco policeman.
"I am very aware of and concerned about their recent rogue tactics. Some neighborhood interests think they can go around our local ordinances and go straight to the ABC to get their way," said Leno, who made his remarks during a Monday, March 30 forum on San Francisco's nighttime economy. "Some folks in the ABC think they can play out their political agenda and we are feeling that here. If we think having an audit done of the ABC would be helpful, I would be prepared to move that forward."
"I don't want anyone running roughshod over our late-night businesses," added Leno to loud applause from the more than 75 people in the audience.
Asked about Leno's comments, ABC spokesman John Carr issued a written statement in which he said the agency is simply performing its "statutorily required duties" by addressing complaints it receives.
"ABC has a responsibility to investigate complaints, and if it is determined through the course of an investigation that a violation or violations occurred, then ABC will press forward with the appropriate action in a fair and reasonable way to address any potential alcoholic beverage license compliance issues," wrote Carr. "The department carries the burden of proof when it investigates a complaint. Any action recommended by the department is subject to the process of a fair and open hearing before an administrative law judge where all parties have the opportunity to present evidence and testimony."
In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter last month, Hardy defended his department's actions, saying, "We are just doing our job."
But local nightclub owners and club promoters have complained that the ABC has taken a more rigorous approach to enforcement since Hardy's appointment to his post in April 2007. Numerous venues have been caught up in raids and enforcement actions that have led them to either close their doors or sue the agency in court.
Tax issues prompted the sudden closure of gay Asian nightclub N' Touch on Polk Street last December after the ABC temporarily suspended the club's license. It has yet to reopen, and the club's phone is now disconnected.
This week, Google blocked the club's Web site after testing found "malicious software" was being downloaded from it and installed without user consent, according to an error message visitors to the site were redirected to by the Internet search firm.
The ABC is in a longstanding battle over the DNA Lounge's liquor license. Host of many LGBT events, the club on 11th Street is fighting the ABC's decision to revoke its license, and in effect, shut down the business for at least a year.
After the ABC targeted 11 live-music clubs in the city for instituting changes to their businesses without first asking the state agency for permission, a new group calling itself Save Music and Culture banded together to fight the agency and its actions. Leaders of the group allege that the ABC went after the clubs because their shows are often 18 and over.
"The ABC wants to impose a condition saying you must serve 50 percent food and 50 percent alcohol. If you don't meet that, you can no longer be open. If the ABC gets its way, it will put all the 18 and over clubs out of business and make them all 21 and over," said Terrance Alan, an openly gay club owner and Entertainment Commissioner who is involved with the new group.
The alliance has since hired local political consulting firm Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners and is stepping up a public relations campaign to fight the ABC's actions. Alan said the firm was hired to help with calls "for a state audit of the ABC and to press for requirements that ABC officials be respectful of the communities in which they act."
One possibility would be the creation of a local oversight board that would be tasked with reviewing ABC policy in San Francisco. The idea is being modeled after a similar arrangement used in San Diego's GasLamp Quarter in its downtown area.
Alan said the group is also looking at how the city enforces its music and culture sustainability plan. Adopted last year, the plan requires that any decisions made by San Francisco officials must take into account how it would impact nightlife.
"As crises come up, we are trying to figure out what that law means," said Alan.
Other ideas floated during Monday's meeting included pressing BART officials to run their trains late into Saturday and Sunday mornings rather than stopping service at 12:30 a.m. so that clubgoers from the East Bay do not need to drive into the city. Another proposal would extend the time clubs could sell alcohol until 3 or 4 a.m. instead of having to shut down their bars now at 2 a.m.
Supporters of the idea argue it would eliminate many problems caused by the mass exodus of people leaving the clubs and bars at one time, from noise on the streets irksome to residents to crowd control issues that bring out the police. Leno tried to pass such a bill when he served in the state Assembly, but it died in committee due to opposition from families who had lost loved ones to drunk drivers.
He said he is willing to press forward with the issue and tweak the legislation so that it would be up to local planning bodies to determine when bars need to stop serving alcohol.
"How can San Francisco compete with cities around the world that have late nightlife that goes past 2 a.m.? We are talking about such 'Wild West' outposts like Portland, Oregon and Fort Worth, Texas," he said. "I think it makes great sense economically, and BART starts early enough so people in the East Bay can leave their cars behind and take BART. There are rational reasons for our Last Call bill, so people aren't guzzling drinks at 2 a.m. and out on the streets causing problems for residents."
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column goes into more detail on the DNA Lounge's liquor license battle with the state's ABC agency.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.