Club compromise

City Attorney Mark Sidran and the music community work on a groove.

They’re more Beastie Boys than barbershop quartet, but a motley chorus of cops, bureaucrats, and club owners is trying to sing a crisp harmony.

Last year City Attorney Mark Sidran shocked club owners with a proposal to require businesses that serve liquor to apply for an “added-activities” license if any live music or dancing took place on the premises. The city attorney’s office cited the need to regulate trouble spots, but the music community saw it as a threat to civil liberties. The ACLU and the Joint Artists & Musicians Promotion Action Coalition (JAMPAC) prepared to rebel.

“We were going to oppose Sidran’s proposal outright,” recalls JAMPAC director Angel Combs.

In stepped City Council member Tina Podlodowski. She made everybody sit down and talk about it for three months. Podlodowski’s Added-Activities Task Force included cops, club owners, prosecutors, Liquor Board agents, and neighborhood activists. In an unprecedented series of meetings late last year, the group discussed the compromises necessary to sculpt an added-activities law that would be fair to clubs while providing the city with an expedient method of dealing with nightspots where crime, noise, and other problems persisted.

Most task force participants agreed that Sidran’s original proposal, which would have given the police the power to grant the added-activities licenses, was dangerously broad.

“A potential downside,” says Podlodowski, “was going after the 1 percent of bad clubs and penalizing the 99 percent of law-abiding clubs.”

Others complained that Sidran’s hidden agenda was to target establishments with African- or Asian-American clientele, a charge he felt compelled to deny in an editorial he wrote for The Seattle Times in May 1998, blaming club owners for overlooking problems as long as the cash kept flowing in. “The only relevant color is green,” he opined.

These issues became touchstones in the task force’s discussions, and appear to have been smoothed out in its final report presented to the City Council this week.

The task force agreed that the Department of Licensing, not the cops, should grant the added-activities license. It also recommended that the license be valid for one year.

The task force split into factions on several other issues, however, presenting two to three options for the City Council to consider when drafting the final law. One area of dissent is about the appeal process when a license is revoked. Sidran wants to deprive an establishment of its license until a case is decided; JAMPAC and others say this could deal a fatal blow to a club, and want music and dancing to continue throughout the appeal.

More bitterly disputed is the definition of the term “premises.” Sidran’s camp maintains that business owners should take responsibility for what goes on not only inside but in the vicinity of their clubs.

“Owners are responsible for impacts on public safety, noise, and other disturbances that are caused by their business,” says Assistant City Attorney Phil Brenneman, a task force member.

But even the group’s moderates call it a sticky issue.

“I don’t know if club owners can take responsibility for something that happens outside their club,” Podlodowski says skeptically. Another task force member, the Seattle Neighborhood Group’s Kay Godefroy, adds, “If something happens on the sidewalk, it’s hard to place blame on the club owner.”

Such details will be hammered out when Podlodowski’s Public Safety Committee begins drawing up a proposal, though there’s no guarantee of consensus. The City Council is also divided into pro- and anti-Sidran factions on the added-activities issue, and some members won’t be as sympathetic as the task force to the club owners’ cause.

Nevertheless, the idea of an added-activities license has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. It started as a pox on the city’s nightlife and may become a salve to help smooth out the rough relationship between clubs and city government. Even Sidran’s office seems pleased by the task force’s work, despite the ongoing disagreement about off-premises incidents.

“Progress was made,” Brenneman says. “It’s something the council can work with to come up with an added-activities ordinance and still provide for a vibrant nightlife.”

Podlodowski predicts that an added-activities license will be approved by the City Council by June 1. She’s confident that the final document will reflect the task force’s wishes.

“My feeling is that the one that’ll pass will benefit the clubs,” she says, “and not be as draconian as what the city attorney will work for.”