Sealing his reputation as perhaps the most anti-nightlife mayor in Seattle history, Mayor Greg Nickels has proposed a new nightclub-licensing program that combines the worst aspects of the noise ordinance, good-neighbor agreements, and former City Attorney Mark Sidran’s unconstitutional added-activities ordinance. (The legislation is the newest bullet point in the mayor’s anti-club agenda. For more, check out last week's feature story.) In response, club owners (including some frustrated members of the mayor-appointed Nightlife Task Force, which was supposed to sign off on the ordinance) have banded together as the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association, which held its first meeting yesterday, just hours after mayoral staffer Jordan Royer sent the legislation to task force members.
The ordinance, which nightclub attorney David Osgood calls “toxic,” “added activities-plus,” and “ten times worse than anything Mark Sidran ever drafted,” includes the following provisions:
• A “nightclub” is defined as any large (50-person capacity or higher) establishment that offers entertainment, including everything from comedy to burlesque to live music to poetry. The new law would therefore apply to just about every bar or venue in the city.
• Nightclub owners would be held responsible for any violations of the new nightclub standards on their “premises,” which according to the ordinance now includes not just the club itself but private parking lots used but not owned by the nightclub.
• Even more egregiously, club owners would be responsible for preventing patrons from carrying weapons or drugs onto the premises—not making efforts to prevent, preventing—and would be required to contact law enforcement “if they either observe or are informed of any possible violations of law occurring either on the premises or in the impacted public areas.
• Speaking of which, here’s the definition of “impacted public areas”: “public property adjacent to the nightclub premises where either patrons or prospective patrons gather.” This puts club owners in charge of not only policing the sidewalk outside their clubs (AKA doing the police department’s job for them) but also of anticipating who might be a “prospective” patron, whatever that means, and controlling their behavior, too. This section is a recipe for selective enforcement against clubs—the kind of selective enforcement that was aimed at Oscar’s II, a club with mostly black patrons that the city tried to shut down six years ago.
• The law includes a new noise ordinance that would apply only to nightclubs, stipulating that any noise “audible to a person of normal hearing” outside a club is grounds for yanking its nightclub license—a totally subjective standard that would give neighborhood residents (wealthy condo owners in Belltown, for example) complete control over clubs’ nighttime activities.
• The city can require clubs to screen all patrons for drugs or weapons, limit the days and times of entertainment, require extra soundproofing, and limit crowd size beyond the limits already codified in city law. Even worse, the conditions the city may impose “are not limited to” the conditions in Nickels’s legislation; that means the mayor can add any new conditions he wants, whenever he wants.
• Applications for nightclub licenses, which would presumably be filed well before a club opens, would have to include the name and work schedule of every manager at the club—information club owners couldn’t reasonably be expected to know months before a club has opened.
• The police chief or director of the Executive Administration office can “summarily suspend” a club license, with no hearing or discussion, if he or she “reasonably determines that the continued operation” of the club “poses an immediate threat of serious injury or damage to person or property. The suspension shall take effect immediately.” This is exactly the sort of thing that drove club owners bonkers when Mark Sidran was fighting for the added-activities ordinance, of which Nickels’s proposal is basically a revised version.
• Nightclub license applications would be reviewed by five separate county and city departments, any one of which could scuttle the application. Additionally, the city may also distribute applications to “the Washington State Liquor Control Board, and other agencies, community councils and organizations the Director determines may have information relevant to a decision on the application,” giving anti-nightclub neighbors free rein to raise frivolous objections to club applications, potentially delaying application approvals.
• A license could be denied if the owner, operator or manager has, in the past year, managed, owned or operated a club that had its liquor license yanked or that was determined to be a public nuisance—a completely over-the-top requirement, particularly as it pertains to managers who may not have even been on shift when the liquor violation occurred.
• Club employees would be responsible for maintaining security within 100 feet of the club a half-hour before and after closing time: something they are not currently legally required—or, for that matter, allowed—to do.
• Clubs would be responsible for picking up litter not just inside and around the club, but on the “adjacent” premises.
Oh, and if a club gets its license suspended for any of the above reasons, it would be shut down automatically for 30 days. Three suspensions and the city shuts it down for good.
The newly formed Nightlife and Music Association, which currently has about 40 members, has meetings planned throughout July. If it grows as much as organizers hope, music promoter David Meinert says, “it could be bigger and more powerful than JAMPAC,” the now-defunct music-industry lobby group whose work was instrumental in overturning the draconian Teen Dance Ordinance. Meinert, who pushed for the creation of the city’s music office in 2003, says, “We should judge the effectiveness of the music office on how this goes forward. If this is what we get with an advocate, why have a music office at all?”
What’s not in Nickels’s ordinance? Any help for clubs whatsoever. There are, of course, regulatory solutions that don’t the entire burden on clubs. A few examples: Twenty-four-hour liquor licenses; requiring people who move into noisy nightlife districts to sign waivers acknowledging they know the nature of the businesses around them; and requiring better noise insulation on new and refurbished condos and apartments, not just clubs. Other ideas?