Should individual cities in Washington be able to petition the state's Liquor Control Board for later bar hours, if they so choose?

That was the question up for discussion at this morning's Liquor Control Board public hearing, led by three board members of the LCB at City Hall. But it wasn't what the majority of neighborhood activists—who are against the Seattle proposal, introduced last fall to let cities petition the LCB for bar service hours past 2:00 a.m.—wanted to talk about.

And so they didn't.

Instead, neighborhood activists spent two hours criticizing later bar hours in Seattle—even though such a proposal doesn't currently exist in any form (which is a little like putting the cart before the horse and lighting it on fire. And then shooting the horse in the head just to be a dick). Residents complained that Seattle bars are already too noisy and later bar hours would only prolong their nighttime suffering. Some worried that there aren't enough cops to currently deal with the 2:00 a.m. pushout (while conveniently ignoring that SPD has endorsed this plan as a way to help manage public safety), that more youths would be drinking in Seattle bars, and that DUIs would skyrocket. Still others complained that they hadn't had enough time to complain about the process yet.

"There’s no plan, no outreach to the community," testified Mariana Quarnstrom before the crowd of 80 people, who seemed evenly split between nightlife industry people and early-to-bed neighborhood activists. (For the record, I disagree.)

"There's been no community input that I'm aware of," echoed Stephanie Tschida, a member of the East Precinct Advisory Council who, despite her assertion, has herself attended at least one public safety meeting on the topic (and who penned this "anonymous" letter against the proposal). "Nightclubs can already stay open as late as they want, why does it have to revolve around alcohol? Fund good music, but not in areas where people live* and will keep them awake all night."

Gary Hothi makes a good point.
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  • Gary Hothi makes a good point.
At best, the testimony was anecdotal. At worst, it was blanket fear-mongering, which prompted LCB board member Chris Marr to gently point out that we're not talking about a Seattle proposal, here, "We’re considering the broader rules in which to engage these requests," i.e., stay on topic or STFU. Obviously, if the LCB approved a petition to consider later bar hours, every city with a proposal would first go through a local vetting process, which would give neighborhood activists a platform to wring their hands and caw about noise.

The most constructive criticism came from Gary Hothi, a UW student working on his Masters in social work. Hothi lives in Federal Way but often drives friends to Seattle nightclubs to drink and party. Hothi worried that extending drinking hours would encourage residents of Federal Way, Bellevue, and other nearby cities to stay out later and drink more before commuting home.

"You’re talking about letting people who awake at 5:00 a.m., work, and then drink until 6:00 a.m., on our highways," he said. "More inebriation, coupled with sleep deprivation, doesn’t equate to community safety."

*i.e., sober tea parties in the desert. That'll totally go over well.

It's a good point—one that I raised when the Mayor announced the petition last July. Getting other state law enforcement agencies, like the state highway patrol, to endorse this petition is integral to its success, as these agencies will have to shoulder some of the burdens associated with out-of-town drinkers. I've asked the mayor's office repeatedly if they've secured that support; I'll update when they respond.

That said, neither Hothi nor anyone else produced data that linked later bar hours to an increase in DUIs. And as LCB board member Marr pointed out, "There are 16 or so municipalities that have [allowed for later bar hours], for quite a few years," he said. "It seems to me that we should be able to move to some empirical basis rather than anecdotal basis on gauging the risks and impacts [of this proposal]."

For it's part, the city has data, along with the support of bar owners, restaurant owners, music venues, nightlife activists, and SPD. James Keblas, director of the city's office of Film and Music, explained that city officials have considered 49 studies analyzing how later bar hours have been implemented elsewhere, and to what effects. "In some cases, the situation got worse. In some cases, it got better," Keblas said. "This alone is not a silver-bullet solution [but] we learned that when you put extended hours in a comprehensive plan… public safety got better."

Which is why Seattle's petition for a rule to allow later bar hours is part of a broader, eight-point Nightlife Safety Initiative introduced by Mayor Mike McGinn in July of 2010. And by the city's estimation, the initiative is working. Last October, the city launched its new Taxi Stand network and this June the city will release a study on the effectiveness of its noise ordinance.

But taxi stands and noise ordinances can't address the 135 percent spike in violence that the city experiences between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m., as all the city's bars shut down in unison and thousands of drunk people scramble to get taxis or otherwise find a way home.

That said, city officials estimate that if 100 businesses were allowed to extend their liquor service hours, that spike would decrease substantially while generating "twenty-six million dollars of economic activity, including two million to the state through B & O sales tax," Keblas estimates. "That means two new jobs per establishment… and it’s our assumption that reducing that spike decreases demand on public safety."

Dozens of nightlife advocates spoke out in favor of the proposal and the positive affect that staggered bar hours would have on their ability to monitor drinkers instead of kicking them all out at once. Dave Meinert, owner of the 5-Point Cafe and Big Mario's, seemed to sum up everyone's sentiment. "I encourage you to not listen to fear-mongering, listen to data," Meinert said. "Good government is run by data, not fear. The 2:00 a.m. closing time is a problem and it needs to be addressed. The opponents have no solution to address this problem. The thing that would be wrong here, would be to promote the status quo."

Today's meeting is only the first of several public hearings to help determine whether Washington cities should have the right to petition the state's Liquor Control Board for later bar hours. Public hearings are also scheduled for Vancouver, the Tri Cities, and Spokane. The LCB is slated to make it's decision on May 7. If the change were enacted, cities would have to present a detailed plan for what specific nightlife neighborhoods bar hours could be rolled back—and to when. The LCB would then approve or reject the proposal.