By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
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Meko and retired police captain John Newlin are the sole commissioners who don't make their living from the entertainment business. "I sometimes find myself feeling very lonely up there," Meko says. "Given the way the appointments work, it seems like everyone else up there has a stake in a nightclub."
The full extent of commissioners' ties to the industry they regulate is difficult to assess, in part because no one keeps track. "We don't check, quite frankly," Davis says of commissioners' relationships with permit applicants who appear before them. "The onus is on them to recuse themselves." Both Joseph and Alan help put on street fairs that must obtain loudspeaker permits from the commission; Davis says these permits are typically approved at the staff level, without going up for a vote.
Davis says that 330 Ritch, the SOMA nightclub co-owned by Roja, has never been before the commission for disciplinary hearings since Roja assumed his seat in February 2008. That's not for a lack of police complaints about the venue, of which 10 were filed since last August. The majority concern noise and raucous crowds when the club lets out, and were clustered at the end of last summer. Davis says commission staff members have twice had meetings with other owners of 330 Ritch — without Roja present — during that time.
Roja, a former neighborhood liaison in the Newsom administration, says he doesn't let his dual roles as club owner and club regulator come into conflict. "My background is in the mayor's office," he says. "I'm very impartial in terms of public agencies that we work with, just because I've worked alongside so many different city departments through the years."
Local conflict-of-interest laws don't merely require recusals on certain permit votes. Public officials are also barred from using their office to undue advantage in private business ventures. For example, Entertainment Commission bylaws forbid commissioners from working as consultants on the permitting process for nightclubs.
The Web site of Joseph's entertainment consulting company advertises "complete consultation on administrative systems and licensing needs." However, she says her consulting services do not extend to permitting, and acknowledges that such activities would be illegal.
"I'm an industry representative. I represent a constituency. And I'm allowed to keep working at my trade," Joseph says, asserting that she personally has steered clear of any conflicts. She continues, "Do other commissioners on my commission have conflicts of interest? That remains for the Ethics Commission to decide."
The record shows that Alan, the other official industry representative, has voted on projects before the commission in which he was personally involved. Last year, he voted to approve permits for the Paradise Lounge at Folsom and 11th streets, a venue where he says he had done volunteer consulting work. (He maintained the vote was proper because he had not been paid.) Last September, the commission voted to sponsor the Get Connected Summit, a technology and entertainment conference he co-founded.
Alan's decision not to recuse himself on that vote led North Beach resident Frank Therre, who has been frustrated at the commission's hands-off approach to watchdogging his neighborhood's nightclubs, to file a complaint with the San Francisco Ethics Commission. In May, after seven months, Therre received a brief letter from ethics officials informing him that his complaint had been dismissed. Alan and Davis said that the Entertainment Commission provided no financial support to the conference, and that "sponsorship" of the event was just a token expression of support.
In managing potential conflicts of interest, Alan says, "I would always err on the side of caution. Why? Because if I fuck up, it's going to look bad for the commission. I'm a volunteer, dude. I spent 10 years of my life volunteering. I don't want to torpedo that. When people accuse me of knowingly participating in decisions where I personally will benefit, I know that they don't know me."
When asked about Pink Diamonds, Alan — sticking to previous public statements, which have been repeated in press reports on the club's troubles — initially told SF Weekly he merely owns the building where the club operates.
When questioned about assertions to the contrary from the city attorney's office, as well as city income-disclosure forms and state business records identifying him as an investor in Club Paree — the partnership that holds the lease on the club space — he said he had accepted a "nonvoting, nonmanaging stake of 20 percent" in the management company in lieu of a security deposit.
When asked about the club's need for permits from the commission he sits on, Alan demurred. "I would imagine that if those requirements are being made on my tenant, it's between my tenant and the city attorney's office," he said. "I have nothing to do with it. I have had to hire an attorney, unfortunately, because of this, and so I have nothing to say to anybody about it. So you're going to have to talk to my attorney."
John St. Croix is executive director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, which oversees public officials' potential conflicts of interest. He declined to discuss specific complaints filed with his office about the Entertainment Commission. Speaking generally, he said the city's conflict-of-interest laws turn on the narrow question of financial gain. "The essence of the law is you cannot vote for or against something that's going to have the potential to enrich you personally and specifically," St. Croix says.