City of 1000 dances?

The notorious Teen Dance Ordinance faces execution.

LATER THIS MONTH, a truce may finally be called in the 15-year war between the city of Seattle and its music-loving teenagers.

An August 21 City Council vote is expected on a new version of the city's notorious Teen Dance Ordinance (TDO), a blunt instrument created in 1985 to protect teenagers from vice and exploitation—but which has ended up separating them from musical entertainment.

The genesis of the TDO is always traced back to the Monastery, a dance club on the edge of downtown which police charged was the site of drug sales, illegal drinking, and sex between adults and teens. The city filed a nuisance abatement lawsuit to close the club, and the information contained in court affidavits spurred a minor furor in the media and in the corridors of City Hall.

The resulting ordinance—supposedly an effort to clean up the club scene for easily exploited kids—ended up regulating the city's teen clubs out of existence. With tough requirements for insurance and security, plus a requirement that kids be at least 16 to get in, the city's all-ages dance clubs disappeared. Worse yet, the language of the ordinance allowed the authorities to lump rock concerts in with dance clubs. The promoters of an International District all-ages punk venue, the Gorilla Gardens, became the first (and to date, only) persons charged with violating the ordinance and a once-thriving all-ages rock scene crumbled.

But, through the work of a 20-member task force set up by City Council member Richard Conlin, a substitute ordinance has been created that specifically legalizes live all-ages musical performances and (its drafters hope) gives teen dances a fighting chance of actually being held within city limits.

"I don't think all-ages shows are inherently more dangerous than anything else," says task force member Stephanie Pure. She stresses that the proposed legislation, dubbed the All-Ages Dance Ordinance, isn't a ploy to throw out the rules, but an effort to allow safe, positive entertainment events that young people can participate in.

The new ordinance drops specific insurance requirements, modifies a former requirement that uniformed police officers provide security, and scraps the age limits for participants. Task force member Dave Meinert, a music promoter, notes that the old law contained tons of loopholes, exempting city-sponsored shows, dances on city property, and events held under the auspices of schools, nonprofit groups, and religious organizations. "When you think about who isn't exempt, [the Teen Dance Ordinance] pretty much targeted small entrepreneurs," he says.

Over the years, people have skirted the law through other means, often by simply ignoring it. As the popular all-night dance parties known as raves have become ingrained in youth culture, many organizers just break the law and hope the cops don't show up. Successful all-ages concerts at venues such as RKCNDY have operated on the edge of the law—the police probably could use the TDO to turn off the music, but concert promoters have convinced them that the shows are well-run and safe.

Not surprisingly, music promoters aren't eager to continue relying on the goodwill (or inaction) of the local constabulary. Meinert says the goal was to create a licensing procedure and accompanying regulations that apply to any all-ages dance event. Although the task force originally wanted to drop all exemptions, council member Conlin has removed schools from the new ordinance's coverage.

THE PROPOSED ALL-AGES Dance Ordinance has also drawn some criticism from dance music fans who wonder why their events would face tough regulations, while live music concerts would be unregulated. Meinert says he's sympathetic to their concerns, but feels the proposed legislation is an acceptable compromise. "I don't think we need this ordinance," he admits. "However, we're going from all-ages dances being illegal to a place where these dances are legal, but less regulated."

The drafters have been able to learn from some of the criticism as well. When Tim Crowley of Free Speech Seattle (a group that unsuccessfully tried to mount an initiative repealing the city's poster ban) posted a several-page critique on the Internet, a surprising thing happened—most of his suggested changes were incorporated into the draft ordinance. Meinert agrees that the provisions cited by Crowley were unworkable and ill-conceived, such as a requirement that an all-ages dance license be linked to a venue, not a promoter. This would have made it impossible for promoters to hold dances at different venues, as is commonly done.

Also added at Crowley's suggestion were strong statements that young people have a free-expression right to participate in music and dance events, plus provisions that guarantee DJs and dance promoters will be represented on the 12-member Music and Youth Commission set up under the ordinance. As envisioned in the task force report, this commission would disseminate information on how to run legal dances and would aid in the review of license suspensions or revocations. A three-member panel comprised of two commission members and a city hearing examiner would sit in judgment of dance promoters charged with allowing drugs or alcohol at their events or violating other city laws.

Task force members were less impressed by claims that the criminal background checks required for license-holders would constitute racial bias since minorities are over-represented in the prison system, a complaint voiced by observer Ralph Warren.

A more predictable source of opposition has been the Seattle Police Department. Captain Jim Pugel, the SPD representative on the task force, voted against the group's final recommendations and Lt. Neil Low of the department's sexual assault unit testified against the ordinance at a recent committee hearing. Low says that mixing teenagers with adults at events could attract child molesters or rapists. "I don't think there's going to be mentoring or role models there, there's going to be exploitation," he told the council.

Sage Burns-Radtke, a 17-year-old Seattle resident, notes that his circle of friends includes people who are both younger and older than he is. Wherever you set an age limit, someone would be excluded, he says. "I don't see why I'm not mature enough to be in the same venue as 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds."

Others point out that, with any age limits, touring dance DJs would face the same problem that has kept many bands from adding Seattle to their schedule in recent years— it's hard to draw a sufficient audience when any potential customer is excluded.

Pure says the big surprise for her is that the parents who have attended task force meetings have been supportive and enthusiastic about the group's work."I was expecting to battle parents and there were none to battle," she notes.

She argues that another important aspect of the All-Ages Dance Ordinance is that it expresses faith in young people. "The reason why this current legislation is so lousy is because of the message it sends to teenagers," she says. "What we're telling them right now is that they're dangerous when they're gathering and that listening to music is dangerous."

And Meinert, for one, has a sense of history: "If they would have had this [law] when the Monastery happened," he says, "they could have shut it down right away."

 
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