Criminalizing dance

Is the city trying to put Seattle clubs out of business?

City Attorney Mark Sidran calls it "a new, sharper tool in our regulatory toolbox." But his latest cabaret license proposal looks more like a buzzsaw to Seattle club owners.

A new draft of the cabaret ordinance, distributed last week, appears to grant the Seattle Police Department sweeping powers to revoke a club's permission to offer live entertainment or dancing—or to block issuance of a permit in the first place.

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Under state law, the city is required to regulate activities beyond food and liquor sales in taverns and restaurants. However, the city hasn't issued cabaret permits since the 1980s. Although permits were supposedly replaced by an informal letter of permission from the city to the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the replacement process wasn't enforced. When the city sought to block Jersey's All-American Sports Bar from holding dance nights in 1992 because the club had no letter of permission, a check of state files found that seven downtown clubs (including prominent rock venues the Weathered Wall, RKCNDY, and the Crocodile) also lacked permission letters for live music.

Although Sidran claims the new ordinance includes due-process protections for clubs, the vague and sweeping language of the draft makes club owners nervous. For example, the current draft would allow the city's police chief to deny a cabaret license if he feels "the applicant has not adequately anticipated likely public safety, traffic, or noise problems ... [or] does not provide sufficient measures to prevent such problems or violations of applicable laws." This would be a hammer to force club owners to negotiate security plans with the police before the fact. The language allowing for suspension of the license is equally broad, stating that club owners are responsible for the behavior of "employees, patrons, or others drawn to or near the premises by the added activities." Suspensions can be based on offenses "including, but not limited to assaults, fights, obstruction or interference with pedestrian or vehicular traffic, alcohol or drug offenses, violation of the noise ordinance, public urination or defecation, and littering."

Pioneer Square club owners joke that if the same requirements were placed on the Kingdome, the County-owned stadium would have lost its liquor license years ago.

Archie O'Connor, vice president of the Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee (JAMPAC), is working with club owners and the American Civil Liberties Union to develop a political strategy. "We want to be very thorough and very clear on what our position is and all the far-reaching effects this ordinance has before we move forward," he says. Then he allowed as how, at first glance, the wording of the proposed ordinance seems "alarming."

Opponents are finding a sympathetic ear in city council chambers. Council member Tina Podlodowski, whose Public Safety Committee will review the draft, has no intention of rushing Sidran's proposal through the process, according to aide Sally Clark. "We're not looking at doing anything on this until June" (after Sidran returns from a planned vacation), says Clark. Podlodowski also plans to hold public meetings to let club owners comment on the proposed rules.

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Tina Podlod's page

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