Club Suede Gets 30-Day Suspension -- Will Entertainment Commission Get Worse?

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The problematic Club Suede is closed for a month. What will become of the problematic Entertainment Commision?
In the wake of a deadly shooting outside Suede this February, the 383 Bay Street nightclub's license has been suspended for 30 days, starting April 5.

This was the Entertainment Commission's unanimous decision after a hearing last night at City Hall. It was a funny sort of hearing: Suede's attorney said in his closing statement that his client definitely deserved to be punished, and the real entity on trial wasn't club Suede, but the Entertainment Commission itself.

As the Chronicle reported after the hearing last night, Mayor Gavin Newsom said yesterday that the Entertainment Commission was ineffective and should be scrapped, and the power to grant and regulate entertainment permits ought to be returned to the police. "I don't, at the end of the day, feel its lived up to its purpose," he said.

Supervisor David Chiu, whose North Beach constituents have been leading a petition campaign to get Suede shut down permanently, said earlier this week that the Suede hearing was a "test" of the Entertainment Commission, and he told the Chronicle last night that he also advocated shutting down the Commission or at least taking away its regulatory powers.

The Commission's critics say it's dominated by nightclub interests and fails to protect the public. In its first six years of operation, it issued only four temporary suspensions of problem venues. At at one point, five of the seven commissioners had direct financial ties to the entertainment industry.

During the hearing last night, lawyers for the city had little trouble demonstrating a pattern of mismanagement at Suede, as police officers and a sound inspector for the Entertainment Commission testified to a pattern of overcrowded parties at the Fisherman's Wharf club spillling out into the streets and becoming rowdy and violent -- and the repeated inability of Suede's security staff to keep the situation under control.

"In a list of problem clubs in the city, I would say Suede would be among the top five," said Vajra Granelli, the commission's sound inspector.

Once, Granelli said, security staff told him they weren't sure how many people were inside the club because they had lost the clicker they were using to count patrons when a fight broke out earlier that evening. When a female patron was being assaulted in the club's lobby by two other patrons, Suede's security did not attempt to help her, but simply pushed the combatants outside onto the street, Granelli said. A police officer from Central Station testified that he watched a drunk Suede patron put his fist through the window of a nearby sushi restaurant. Police officers from Central Station said Suede was at the top of their list of clubs that needed monitoring and frequent police assistance. The night before the Feb. 7 shooting, police donned riot gear to respond to a crowd outside Suede.

But it wasn't really the charges against Suede that were at issue last night, but the question of why it took a homicide in front of the nightclub before Suede faced any serious consequences for its mismanagement.

At the close of the hearing, Entertainment Commissioners Jim Meko and Terrance Alan blamed the police code, which mandates that the Entertainment Commission can only suspend a club's permit for 30 days for a first offense, and then mandates further suspensions of 60 and 90 days for second and third offenses with a period of six months.

Meko and Alan have both been on the Commission since its founding, and Alan was instrumental in the advocacy that lead to the Commission's creation in 2003.

Alan said "the most egregious fault" lay in the legal process that governs how the Entertainment Commission regulates clubs, and he called for "legislative remedy" of the problem.

But police commander James Dudley, the former captain of Central Station, told SF Weekly that the problem was the Entertainment Commission's failure to discipline Suede for the earlier offenses described in the hearing.

"This should be strike five, not strike one," he said.

Arthur C. Lipton, the attorney for Hanson Wong, owner of Club Suede, said repeatedly during the hearing that his client had been willing to accept most of the city's charges against him and that Suede was very willing to accept the suspension. His major defense of Suede was that it had never been issued a citation by the police, despite the police's testimony about the club's many problems. "The police really didn't act except to come and say, try harder," Lipton told SF Weekly after the hearing.  

"Not only is Club Suede being used as a scapegoat, so is this commission," Lipton said in his closing statement.

Wong, the owner of Suede, declined to comment about the hearing, and also declined to comment about whether Suede would be opening after its 30-day suspension. 

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