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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.

Wednesday, Jul 8 2009
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To forestall similar problems at L'Amour, police Sergeant Edward Anzore took the station's complaints to the Entertainment Commission. At a public meeting on Jan. 20, commissioners learned that L'Amour had been holding large hip-hop parties without a required permit. Davis confirmed that the club lacked a permit and said that it was "on the radar," according to meeting minutes. Audrey Joseph, a former nightclub owner who chairs the commission, assured Anzore that staff would investigate.

They did not. In a recent interview, Davis confirmed that there was no follow-up from his staff on the January police reports. Soon enough, however, L'Amour became impossible to ignore. In February, as a party was letting out close to 1:30 a.m., a 17-year-old San Francisco man shot a 21-year-old Oakland man in the stomach outside the club.

The gunshot victim survived. For a while, the future of L'Amour seemed less certain. Its numerous code violations, combined with the shooting, led police to redouble their calls for action from the Entertainment Commission, which has the sole authority to suspend or revoke entertainment licenses.

A March inspection by the commission's field officer revealed that L'Amour was still violating safety regulations. Nobody was checking patrons' ID at the door, and no security guards were seen on the premises. A handwritten occupancy sign reading "49" had been affixed to the wall — a convenient number, since city law dictates that any clubs holding more than 49 people are required to employ security staff. (By contrast, police had reported seeing hundreds of patrons there during their December inspection.)

Today, despite these problems, L'Amour is still open. Davis says the club has fixed its fire-code violations and is now considered in compliance with the law. (Trish Pham, the club's manager, did not return calls for comment.) But Captain James Dudley, the Central Station commander, says the progression of incidents at the club over the winter speaks volumes about the commission's lack of zeal in its regulatory duties.

"We provided the Entertainment Commission with warnings," he says. "If, after that first memo, somebody from the Entertainment Commission walked in and said 'Let me see your permit,' they could provide none. Right then, you'd say, 'Okay. Your permit is suspended pending your clearing up these fire-code violations, pending your public-assembly number, pending a security plan, pending an updated business plan.' That wasn't done. Next thing you know, there's a shooting."


Entertainment Commission staffers are the first to acknowledge that their enforcement process is slow-moving, though they say it's not for lack of trying. "It's just like any legal or court case," field officer Vajra Granelli says. "It takes a lot of due diligence. I think it's really important that this system exists."

Granelli, the commission's eyes and ears throughout the city, has no power to cite clubs for infractions of their permit conditions. He's also the sole field investigator employed by the agency to oversee the city's hundreds of clubs. "I could do the same amount of hours I do now and do just South of Market," he says.

The commission's most prominent temporary permit-suspension hearing, held for Kelly's Mission Rock in 2005, required months of preparation, including more than 300 hours of work from the city attorney's office. Today, Davis says, he can no longer afford lawyers from the city attorney — who bill departments for their time — because of budgetary issues, drastically curtailing his ability to effectively pursue serious disciplinary action.

"We are a bureaucracy," Davis says. "I have no enforcement officers. I have nobody who can cite anybody."

Indeed, when it comes to hard-line application of the law, the Entertainment Commission's way of doing business often appears dysfunctional by design. The bizarre division of labor in the enforcement process between police officers with no say in permit suspension and a civilian commission with no legal expertise — originally conceived as a system of checks and balances — in practice means that most complaints languish.

A much more common approach to problem venues, Davis says, is negotiation — cajoling them into line through meetings and talks, rather than formal disciplinary actions. This soft approach is combined with a permissive licensing process that grants the benefit of the doubt, even to inexperienced club owners. In 2005, Alan boasted to the San Francisco Business Times that the commission had handed out more permits in its first full year of operation than the police had in the previous eight years.

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.

About The Author

Peter Jamison

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