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.

According to UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain, that's setting the bar too low. There are good reasons the web of personal and professional ties between a commission stacked with industry insiders and the nightclubs they're supposed to oversee defies common sense, Cain says.

"Right from the start, the idea of putting promotion and regulation together is a bad idea," he says. "You can imagine having these nightclub owners on a commission that promotes nightlife. But it's clearly problematic, and raises lots of conflicts of interest if you allow them to regulate those establishments. And it's not just a conflict of interest if it affects your particular establishment, but if you have any kind of financial connection as the lease holder, or your brother does, or your family does, or your friends do."

Cain says San Francisco's Entertainment Commission offers a textbook case of what government-ethics experts call "regulatory capture." "The people who are supposed to be regulated take over the regulating body," he explains. "Partly it's because they're the ones who care the most about it, and everybody else tends not to. But it clearly produces a skew in the policy, because the people have a vested interest."

City Attorney 
Dennis Herrera has vowed to shut down the notoriously 
violent Pink Diamonds club, which is co-owned by Entertainment Commissioner Terrance Alan
Jake Poehls
City Attorney Dennis Herrera has vowed to shut down the notoriously violent Pink Diamonds club, which is co-owned by Entertainment Commissioner Terrance Alan
The Entertainment Commission ignored police  warnings about L’Amour. Then someone was shot there.
Jake Poehls
The Entertainment Commission ignored police warnings about L’Amour. Then someone was shot there.

The knotty issue of commissioners' real or perceived conflicts of interest, acknowledged privately by many city officials, has stirred little in the way of concrete action or stricter ethics rules. The question of lax enforcement of club regulations is another matter. In January 2008, faced with a rising epidemic of nightclub violence, the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice held a Nightlife Safety Summit. Newsom and Police Chief Heather Fong then announced a new legislative initiative to bring bad clubs to heel.

"People are going to these nightclubs, carrying guns, and committing violent crimes," Newsom, himself a former nightclub owner, said at the time. "This violence will not be allowed to continue, and we are telling nightclub industry officials that we are here to help you, but we are going to make some changes."

Out of that pronouncement came a proposed revision to the San Francisco Police Code. The most significant changes would enable Entertainment Commission staff to issue citations for permit violations just as police officers do, and — more importantly — would give the commission's executive director the power to temporarily suspend a nightclub's permit for up to three days with only eight hours' notice. These measures would address police concerns about the lack of a rapid-response mechanism when club violence gets out of hand.

Nevertheless, the new bill has become mired in controversy. Police and neighborhood activists, acting on their long-simmering frustration with the Entertainment Commission, have successfully lobbied David Chiu, the freshman president of the Board of Supervisors, for some dramatic changes to the bill.

In May, Chiu proposed amendments, including a cap on the number of extended-hours permits that can be issued in a given year. (About 100 businesses in San Francisco currently hold such permits, many of them late-night restaurants.) He also introduced oversight measures designed to increase the Entertainment Commission's public accountability, such as regular reporting on follow-up to police and resident complaints. Additionally, the city's police chief would be authorized to initiate a suspension hearing before the commission if the agency's employees don't respond to requests for such a hearing.

These measures have provoked staunch resistance from the commission and industry interests, and the bill is now stalled in the Board of Supervisors' City and Neighborhood Services Committee. Kevin Ryan, the former judge and U.S. attorney who now heads the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, backs the Entertainment Commission's preferred version of the legislation.

Chiu's critics say his amendments have thrown a wrench into legislation that was fine-tuned over a year and a half to balance the needs of nightclubs and law enforcement.

"He's a brand-new supervisor to a large district," Joseph says. "I think he's got a little too much on his plate, and he's not thinking clearly."

Chiu says such arguments exaggerate how comfortable city officials — particularly within the police department — were with the legislation. "There have been longstanding complaints from both the police department and neighbors around the city that complaints they file with the Entertainment Commission have not been followed up on," he says. "The Entertainment Commission does have these dual, contradictory missions of both promoting the industry and regulating the industry. And I think that many of the challenges in this area have probably been a function of those contradictions."

City officials outside the commission continue to count Pink Diamonds among the worst of those challenges. After the club's most recent outbreak of violence on June 27, City Attorney Dennis Herrera vowed to close its doors for good. "The neighborhood is clamoring for some solution, and they deserve it," he said. "And I'm going to do everything in my power to shut this place down. Enough is enough."

The incident in question took place at about 3 a.m. on a Saturday — an hour at which Pink Diamonds is not legally allowed to operate, since it lacks an extended-hours permit. Harris Fulbright, a 30-year-old from San Francisco, was shot to death outside the strip club after fighting with another customer waiting in line. Later that day, the crime scene had been cleared, and a reporter who knocked on the door was greeted by a janitor. He said the owners and management team were absent, but confirmed that Pink Diamonds would be open for business again that night.

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