For Entertainment Purposes Only

The Entertainment Commission is supposed to regulate S.F. nightclubs, but it won't — and often can't — punish scofflaws. The results are sometimes tragic.

Commissioners argue this stance is necessary because assembly and entertainment (construed as free speech) are constitutionally protected rights under the First Amendment. By contrast, Tom Ferriole, director of Citizens United for Neighborhood Planning, a Union Square residents' association, opines that the Entertainment Commission is "doing its job. It's rubber-stamping entertainment permits, which is exactly what it was set up to do."

Captain Daniel McDonagh of the SFPD Southern Station, which also handles a heavy load of nightclub-related complaints, says that when a club erupts in gunfire on Friday night and plans to open again on Saturday, swifter action is called for than the current system allows.

"If there's a problem at a nightclub tonight, we can't say, 'We have to shut you down until you get your house in order,'" he says. "We have to go to the Entertainment Commission, ask them to shut it down, and they may or may not do it. It has to be a system where the police department can step in and say, 'We've got to shut you down until you are back on board.'"

Such a system once existed. Until the 1990s, authority for granting, suspending, and revoking nightclub permits rested with those confronting brawling patrons on the front lines: San Francisco's police officers. But demographic shifts within the city about 15 years ago began setting the stage for a change to the status quo.

An influx of well-to-do condo owners in SOMA — then the major hub of the city's dance clubs, particularly gay ones — brought increasing pressure on the district's police captains to crack down on warehouse parties and raucous venues, some of which were bringing in thousands of people several nights a week. At the same time, rave culture was hitting its peak, and techies with a penchant for dancing the night away and money to spend threw their support behind a new political action committee, the San Francisco Late Night Coalition, created to advance their interests in the so-called Club Wars.

Founded by promoters, DJs, and clubgoers frustrated with what they saw as the heavy-handedness of the police department's approach to regulating nightclubs, the coalition depended on club owners and others with links to the entertainment industry to fill its coffers. It has contributed $49,000 to various local political races between 2000 and 2008. Alan is its current chairman. The committee's greatest success, by far, has been the establishment of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission.

"Friends of mine were throwing events in warehouses," coalition political director John Wood recalls. "Sometimes those events would get shut down for lack of permits." A concurrent police crackdown on a few large gay clubs in SOMA led to a crusade among promoters, DJs, and clubgoers for a reformed permitting process that would favor club owners and warehouse partiers — an independent political body that, in Wood's words, "would babysit the industry" and shield it from the police department.

That crusade got a boost in 2000, when a civil grand jury report concluded that the existing system of police permitting was unfair. The grand jury recommended that permitting authority be turned over to a panel of department heads representing various city agencies, such as the police, fire, public health, public works, and planning departments. The idea of an impartial committee of city employees was scrapped, however, under lobbying from the Late Night Coalition, which sought a commission of political appointees that would include nightclub-industry representatives. It had the ear of then-Supervisor Mark Leno, a club enthusiast who has been a frequent recipient of coalition campaign contributions.

It was Leno who crafted the legislation that created the Entertainment Commission, an unprecedented governmental agency that would promote and expand nightlife — and also regulate it. It was granted the sole power to issue, suspend, and revoke permits to operate after 2 a.m. and host live-music acts, including DJs. The threat of withdrawing these permits had traditionally been the biggest stick police had for forcing intractable club owners into line.

"We were thinking, 'Who are the voices that need to be heard?'" Leno, now a state senator, recalled in an interview. He said the commission's variety of stakeholder representatives — two from the entertainment industry, two from the neighborhoods, and one each from law enforcement, public health, and urban planning — prevented the nightclub industry hijacking the permitting board to advance its own interests. "If you had all club promoters, or all club owners, the answer to your question would be yes," he said, when asked whether such a danger existed. "But they're just two of seven, so we think it's a good balance."

Today, that balance has tipped decisively. In addition to the commission's two industry representatives, three of the five remaining commissioners have industry ties. Justin Roja, the urban planning representative, co-owns the nightclub 330 Ritch. Erik Joseph Pred, the public-health representative, is an emergency-medical-services contractor for entertainment events, including Burning Man. Nikki Calma, who was recently appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom as a neighborhood representative on the commission, is a hostess and musical director at the SOMA club AsiaSF.

The two industry representatives have ties to many sectors of San Francisco nightlife. Audrey Joseph is a producer and former owner of the renowned Club Universe, who now works as a consultant for club owners and event organizers. Terrance Alan, in addition to his financial interests in Pink Diamonds and chairmanship of the Late Night Coalition, has done consulting work for BSC Management, which runs multiple San Francisco clubs. He also has a pornography company, New Meat, that sells videos of sexual encounters between amateur male actors — a gay version, if you will, of Girls Gone Wild.

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