Cleaning Up Entertainment Commission Is Harder Than You'd Think

Categories: Law & Order
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Earlier this week, Chron columnist C.W. Nevius suggested that the best way to deal with the current standoff between police, nightclubs, and neighbors over nightlife regulation would be to scrap the too-nightlife-friendly Entertainment Commission and create a new one.

"Let the current commission handle promotion of the industry, and create a new group to deal strictly with enforcement," Nevius wrote.

Since the death of a 19-year-old Richmond resident outside Club Suede near Fisherman's Wharf this February, the columnist has been on the front lines of an attack against the Entertainment Commission, which he has called "a total failure." But making nightclub enforcement more effective isn't just a matter of whether or not the commission is free of nightlife ties, as Nevius suggests.

Tougher enforcement would require: 1) a bigger budget for costly suspension hearings, and; 2) another look at the police code that lays down the rules for regulating problem clubs -- laws that will bind whomever is tasked with overseeing those clubs. That, at least, is the perspective of Jim Meko, an Entertainment Commissioner with a long record of criticizing the commission's failings. "It is true that our staff at the Entertainment Commission look for other means to solve problems short of going to a suspension hearing -- and one of the controlling reasons is that a suspension hearing is expensive," Meko said. 

Suspension hearings -- the real teeth of the current Entertainment Commission's enforcement -- require the services of the city attorney's office. And they bill for their time. Want more immediate, tough enforcement? It's going to cost more.

But the bigger problem with Nevius' idea of a brand-new Entertainment Commission, Meko said, is that the procedure for shutting down problem clubs is detailed in the police code. And it's a slow procedure  that gives clubs ample opportunity to clean up their acts.

No matter who is in charge of regulating nightclubs -- the police, the Entertainment Commission, Nevius's  new "apolitical" Entertainment Commission substitute -- that process will be the same, Meko said.

Attend a neighborhood meeting, like the one in North Beach after the Suede shooting, and it's obvious that outraged neighbors don't want to hear about this legal requirement to give clubs due process in addressing their problems. At the February North Beach meeting, one woman asked if Mayor Gavin Newsom could just shut down Club Suede regardless of the law. Wasn't it an emergency? The representative from the city attorney's office had to break it to her gently that she wasn't in favor of asking the mayor to break the law.

 "When the police used to control the permitting, they had to operate under the same kind of rules we did, and the neighbors were just as frustrated with the police as they are with us now," Meko said. He noted that, 10 years ago, one group of neighbors grew so fed up with the police's inability to deal with an out-of-control club on 11th Street that they ended up going to small claims court to address the situation.

When the police did try to take more immediate action against nightclubs, the clubs would appeal their decision and win, which was a costly process for the city.

The nightclub wars in San Francisco are more than a decade old, and the last police- nightclubs-neighbors battle as heated as this one resulted in a shift of permitting powers from the police to the Entertainment Commission. But that hasn't been much of a solution.

If Meko's right, people interested in better nightlife regulation need to look at the root of the issue - -the police code governing problem clubs, and the budget for the costly revocation hearings -- rather than pushing the Entertainment Commission aside to reinvent the wheel again.

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