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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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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.

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."


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.

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Peter Jamison

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