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Nightclub License Bounced by Council

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Alice Wheeler

In a single week, Mayor Greg Nickels's office went from giddy to galled. After last week's Operation Sobering Thought—a $52,000 Seattle Police Department undercover sting operation that caught 15 local bars admitting and serving minors, overserving, and (sort of) allowing guns into clubs ["The Saturday Night Massacre," Josh Feit, Sept 13]—Nickels believed Council Member Sally Clark's version of his nightclub license proposal was a done deal. That proposal would have forced clubs to get a nightclub license that the mayor's Department of Executive Administration could deny or revoke at its discretion, giving the executive sweeping authority to shut down clubs.

Operation Sobering Thought had shown, Nickels thought, that "some clubs in Seattle are not even following basic liquor laws," according to Nickels spokesman Martin McOmber. "The fact is they were serving minors and letting people into clubs with weapons. That is deeply troubling."

On September 17, however, the city council voted 6–3 for license legislation that was so watered-down by crafty opponents of the proposal, including Jean Godden, that it didn't even include a license.

Godden, who completely outmaneuvered license proponent Clark, says the heavy-handed sting (which she believes "may have violated people's civil rights") made her dislike the license idea even more than she already had. She says it demonstrated that the city already has laws on the books to deal with problems in clubs.

On September 13, Godden drafted a last-minute amendment to Clark's proposal that deferred a vote on the license for a year. It would also empower a nightlife commission to gather data and details about violence in clubs and report back to the council on whether there needs to be a license at all. The vote thus put power where opponents of the licensing scheme wanted it all along—in the hands of a group that will include nightlife industry representatives and neighborhood representatives, not in the hands of the mayor. "The commission could have been ignored in the mayor's original scheme," Council President Nick Licata—who voted for the amendment before voting for the final legislation—says. "What it needed was to get the attention of mayor and council, and the only way to do that was to make our vote come after their report."

As Peter Steinbrueck, the harshest critic of the license (he provided a key fifth vote for the amendment before voting against the final legislation), said: "In all of this discussion, I've never been given any details about violence inside clubs. Should we make Macy's or McDonald's get a license?" he asked, referring to the violence that has taken place outside those establishments at Third Avenue and Pine Street. His humorous and spot-on take got raucous applause from the nightclub workers who had packed the hearing. They also cheered loudly when Godden's amendment passed, prompting Clark to turn red.

Council President Licata had actually floated a version of Godden's amendment informally a few weeks ago, but found no traction for it. However, with Godden suddenly taking action, Licata and Richard Conlin—who, Conlin says, "were not really excited about the license" although they both planned to vote for it—found a way to add Godden's vote to the count in favor of the legislation, giving the new proposal a commanding six-vote majority. (Steinbrueck along with Tom Rasmussen and Richard McIver—who raised concerns about the city's history of discriminating against black clubs—voted no.)

"Six votes sends a strong message to the mayor that the council is united," Licata says. "He can't veto this ordinance."

And Nickels, who already symbolically refused to sign two ordinances about noise and overcrowding in clubs that some on the council hoped would supercede the license idea, is definitely mad about Monday's vote. A Nickels press release issued immediately after the vote said, "Voting 'maybe' won't ensure that we have a safe and vibrant nightlife in Seattle."

"Voting 'maybe'" is actually a positive spin. Really, the council voted no. "There's no license," Seattle Nightlife and Music Association lobbyist Tim Hatley said after the somewhat confusing hearing.

The council also voted "no" on handing the mayor an inordinate amount of power to close private businesses. That is good news to people like Guy Godefroy, a manager at Trinity nightclub in Pioneer Square, who testified against the license at the hearing. "Power is much easier to give than take away," he told the council. "I might not mistrust this council and this mayor, but someone could misuse this in the future." recommended

josh@thestranger.com

 

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