City Task Force Targets Downtown Nightclubs
On Saturday, August 6, representatives of the Seattle police, fire, transportation, and other city departments stormed into Tula's, a quiet jazz club on Second Avenue in Belltown, and started making demands. They inspected the exits and sidewalks for fire-code violations. They stood in front of the stage and shone their flashlights around. They asked for the club's liquor license, its occupancy permit, and something called an "open-flame permit" for the votive candles on the tables. And they examined the club's tax receipts to make sure patrons were paying a mandatory admissions tax.
The visit, which came in the middle of the last show on a busy Saturday night, would have almost been comical had it not been so disruptive. According to audience member Jane Peck, a member of the local chapter of the Recording Academy, the officers talked loudly, shone their flashlights into the audience, and generally made "a great show of force to command everyone's attention. It was the most appalling thing I had ever seen in my life. People were just stunned."
The seeming raid, Peck learned from the city the following week, was actually a routine visit from the city's Joint Assessment Team (JAT), a group of officials from the city's departments of fire, police, health, revenue, planning, and transportation, and the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Over eight weeks, the JAT will drop in on approximately 90 downtown bars and nightclubs from Pioneer Square to Lower Queen Anne as part of a pilot project to monitor nightclubs and make sure they follow the city's rules.
City officials—including Mayor Greg Nickels's office, which oversees the JAT—call the program an effort to balance the needs of clubgoers and downtown's growing residential population. Mayoral staffer Jordan Royer says that with so many people moving into the central city, "we wanted to figure out how we could make things a little safer." In a letter sent to bar and club owners last week, Royer characterized the JAT as "part of an overall plan to... solve current and potential public-safety and quality-of-life issues as they relate to late-night entertainment establishments."
But some club owners and patrons say the JAT's visits unfairly target clubs to the exclusion of other entertainment venues. "We would not have seen this behavior if we were at the symphony," Peck says. Others, including Mirabeau Room co-owner and music-industry activist Dave Meinert, have trouble seeing the connection between public safety—which everyone agrees is a laudable goal—and inspections of tax records and candle permits.
Meinert, whose club the JAT inspected earlier this month, says the JAT's officers "come in like the Gestapo and want you to stop doing business at your busiest time," on Friday and Saturday nights. "And what are the results so far? A couple of people didn't have their occupancy permit in the right place or didn't have open-flame permits for their votive candles. It's really silly stuff."
Indeed, of more than 60 violations uncovered so far by the JAT, only a dozen or so have had anything to do with the physical safety of club patrons. The rest involve things like out-of-date or improperly posted permits, expired video-game registrations, and under-collection of the mandatory five-percent admissions tax.
James Keblas, longtime director of the all-ages advocacy group the Vera Project and current head of the mayor's office of film and music, supports the goal of improving public safety for nightclub patrons and downtown residents but expressed some concern about the JAT's tactics. He says the team needs to keep in mind that nightclubs are also businesses. "If all of a sudden five or six people come in and say, 'We need to ask you some questions, and we need to see all your permits, and we need you to deal with that right now,' you're going to be like, 'I can't do that right now. I'm running a business.'" Given the city's "horrible" history of anti-music-industry legislation and onerous nightclub regulations, Keblas says, the JAT is "set up for disaster. They need to be extremely sensitive."
As recently as last year, the mayor's office was actually ingratiating itself to the music industry, funding a "music industry economic impact statement" that found the industry contributes $650 million to the city's economy every year. Now, Peck says, all that seems to have changed. "I had just recently attended a music-industry campaign forum where [current and aspiring city council members] had all voiced their support of the music community. To see this happen just a few weeks later—I was stunned."
Regarding the Tula's incident, Royer says the JAT officers "realized it was kind of going sideways" and got out as fast as they could. "I'm sure we'll get some criticism that it was heavy-handed or something. We'll take care of it. We really don't want to be Big Brother coming down on everybody." But the incident makes Peck worry that the city is serving wealthy downtown condo owners at the expense of longtime clubgoers like herself. "We were appalled to find out this was going on all over the city," Peck says. "It's hard [for club owners] to abide by the rules when the rules are ridiculous."