City Harasses Beloved—and Peaceful—University District Bar
Last February, city officials invited Gus Hellthaler, the longtime owner of the Blue Moon Tavern on Northeast 45th Street, to a meeting at the north police precinct. At the meeting, north precinct liaison attorney Ed McKenna slid a "community good neighbor agreement" (CGNA) across the table and asked Hellthaler to sign it.
Hellthaler told McKenna he wasn't interested. The document listed 32 terms, from basics like requiring the Blue Moon to follow liquor rules and local laws—stuff the bar already does—to weird, micromanaging items. "Each security guard shall carry a high-beam flashlight," reads one arbitrary rule, while another stipulates, "If requested, Blue Moon Tavern will join other neighborhood establishments for the purpose of establishing a business association." If that association hires neighborhood security, the agreement says the Blue Moon has to help fund it. "It's just another layer of authority for the city to hold over us," Hellthaler says now. "[McKenna] was kind of stunned when I refused to sign the document."
Two months later, Hellthaler got a letter from the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB), denying his application for an upgraded liquor license; Hellthaler had hoped to start pouring vodka, gin, and whiskey alongside his current menu of beer and wine.
"The city objected to our license and the state rubberstamped their objection," Hellthaler grumbles. Now, Hellthaler and his attorney plan to challenge the city's objection—and the CGNA at the root of the standoff—in front of a judge.
Hellthaler is not sure why the city wanted him to sign a CGNA in the first place. At his meeting at the north precinct, McKenna alluded to crime problems at the Blue Moon, a beloved bar where the tables and seats bear etchings from seemingly every patron who's ever walked through the door ("I love Bill," "God wanted ded or alive"). Likewise, the walls are coated in tobacco-yellowed postcards, wrinkled photos, leftist posters—a Nader banner adorns the ceiling above the tap—and hardcover books that collectively tell the tavern's history as a hub for blue-collar workers, counterculture poets, and UW students and professors.
McKenna didn't detail the crime allegations during their meeting (and he declined to comment on the Blue Moon to The Stranger, citing the upcoming hearing). City attorney's office spokesperson Ruth Bowman says simply that police are concerned about "drug deals that were going on in the bar, and some other nefarious activities." Hellthaler filed a public-records request to find out exactly what had the city so concerned about his bar.
It turns out the police have done a few undercover drug busts in and around the Blue Moon. "They arrested exactly three people," Hellthaler says, spreading the police reports on the table, the latest dated 2003 (just before Seattle voters made pot the city's lowest law-enforcement priority). "One for $80 worth of marijuana, one for $50, and one for $10," he says, incredulously.
Finding out about the laughably small busts only added to Hellthaler's confusion over the city's attempt to foist extra regulations on his business. He has a great record as a bar owner. In 23 years, the Blue Moon has had only two minor liquor violations. (Here's one of them: Years ago, he brought his 4-year-old daughter to the bar early in the morning, before it opened, so he could keep an eye on her while he tidied up. The bar was cited for allowing in an underage person.) The neighborhood likes the place, or at least doesn't complain. "We haven't heard any concerns about [the Blue Moon] from the community," says University District Community Council Chair Matt Fox.
As recently as December, the city actually approved of the Blue Moon. City departments—from the Seattle Police Department's narcotics unit to the department of neighborhoods—signed off on a December 28, 2004, liquor-license change that added Hellthaler's sister, checking a box marked "this office has no information on file that could support an objection."
So what the hell is going on? Why would the city insist on a CGNA with the Blue Moon only a few months later, and object to Hellthaler's upgraded liquor license when he didn't sign the agreement?
Community good neighbor agreements are a new way for the city to flex its muscle on bars and clubs. Originally, CGNAs—which outline anything from basic liquor rules and local laws, to more specific items tailored to each bar, like what kind of security staff the owner should hire—were used to mitigate neighbors' concerns over already-problematic bars. The city—and neighbors—hoped the agreements would prevent more problems down the road.
But lately, the city has been papering the town with preemptive CGNAs, asking more and more bars to sign the agreements, even if they have little to no history of causing conflict in the neighborhood. In Fremont, for example—a neighborhood where the nightlife has exploded in recent years, rivaling only downtown for its density of bars and clubs—the city set out to obtain CGNAs with almost every bar or club (including brand-new ones, like Nectar and Brouwer's Cafe). "The city attorney said that's something they could do for us," says Fremont Neighborhood Council President Vafa Ghazi. "And we said, that would be great." So far, most places have signed: "The city attorney told us they can't really go and make everyone sign this. But they have for the most part done that," Ghazi says. The Wallingford Community Council took note, and has indicated they'd like their district's bars to sign agreements, too.
It's unclear what happens if a bar violates their CGNA terms—especially the more onerous, nitpicking requirements that go above and beyond the law, like rules about posting a customer code of conduct, or putting taxi companies' numbers on the tables. It's likely the city would object to the bar's annual liquor-license renewal if a CGNA were violated. That's the threat the city uses to get bars and clubs to sign a CGNA in the first place: City officials pledge to object to a liquor license if the establishment doesn't sign the CGNA. (Under state law, and reiterated on the WSLCB's website, a simple "objection from the local authority," is a solid reason for denial.) Under that coercive system, most bars and clubs (many reluctantly) sign the agreement.
At the Blue Moon, Hellthaler, a spry 56-year-old in a Blue Moon T-shirt and jeans, with a crossword puzzle tucked into his back pocket, sips a pint of Anchor Steam and explains why he didn't sign. Calling the agreement "illiterate, innumerate, and absurd," Hellthaler thinks it's just a way for the city to over-regulate his business. He and his attorney, Tom Nast, plan to challenge the city's objection to his upgraded license, and the CGNAs, in an October administrative hearing. They want to ask McKenna why the city's so wedded to CGNAs, and whether they're even effective—or just another attempt to stifle the city's firstname.lastname@example.org