If the crackdown on bars that city of Boulder officials were discussing at a city council meeting this week sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s similar to the approach that City Attorney Tom Carr took when he was Seattle’s city attorney.
But Carr denies that he’s driving the changes, and that his reputation of having a puritan-like agenda against nightlife and bars is not deserved.
Still, to some, the most recent effort to increase enforcement and regulation of establishments with liquor licenses smacks of the same authoritarian approach that city officials have been applying to other issues in recent years, from the camping ordinance that keeps homeless people from sleeping outdoors to the attempt at requiring protesters to obtain permits to the heavy-handed policing of medical marijuana dispensaries and the annual 4/20 pot smokeout.
Could the Republic of Boulder, once considered a bastion of progressive thought that fiercely protected people’s freedoms and individualism, now be the biggest nanny state in the area?
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Among the changes that city officials proposed this week in a new “action plan” for dealing with alcohol-related problems are to:
• target “problem” liquor-licensed establishments, also referred to as “bad actors,” without much detail on how a business will earn that tag
• remove the Beverage Licensing Authority’s power to revoke or suspend liquor licenses and give that authority to the municipal judge or a contracted attorney
• create new land-use definitions that differentiate between “low-impact” restaurants and establishments that serve primarily alcohol, especially hard liquor, after 11 p.m. as “high-impact,” holding them more accountable for their effects
• consider the creation of “late-night business licenses” and collect fees from bars that operate after 11 p.m., providing an “additional tool to resolve bad actors’ community impacts,” according to city council materials.
The moves sound a bit like some of the tactics Carr was credited with using in increasing regulation of nightlife in Seattle.
As Boulder Weekly reported in June 2010 in a piece by Seattle journalist Dominic Holden, a longtime critic of Carr, the former Seattle city attorney was at the center of what some say were heavy-handed approaches to crack down on bars.
For example, Holden wrote, in a 2007 sting operation called “Operation Sobering Thought,” Carr and the Seattle Police Department claimed that two dozen people either illegally served minors or let undercover operatives who didn’t have valid ID into bars. But some called the campaign overzealous and sloppy. In one instance, police jailed a bar employee for 11 hours, allegedly for serving a drink to a drunk man, even though the Seattle Times wrote that the police report says the bartender only “poured him a glass of water.” Carr charged the bartenders and doormen with gross misdemeanors, punishable by a year in jail, but none of the cases resulted in a conviction. Public criticism swelled, and some speculated that the sting was politically timed one week before the Seattle City Council was set to vote on strict new rules for nightclubs. Carr offered plea agreements for lesser charges to 17 of the defendants, most of whom had no criminal history.
In 2009, Holden reported, an assistant attorney at Carr’s office warned bar owners — who had overwhelmingly come out to support Carr’s opponent, whom he eventually lost to — that police would approach apparently intoxicated pedestrians, ask them where they’ve been drinking, and try to shut down bars they named. Carr claimed problems of over-service at bars in one neighborhood were linked to rising assaults and robberies, but police records showed that those crimes in the neighborhood were actually down.
According to Holden, Carr also implemented “good neighbor agreements,” which were contracts that a restaurant or bar owner would have to sign before they could obtain a liquor permit. According to nightlife advocates, one such agreement he drafted for a bar called Twist contained 54 specific regulations, including that no doors or windows could ever be open, no dancing was allowed, and that staff had to wear “finely tailored black suits.” And the Blue Moon bar had to sign an agreement that required the owner to pay for any security employed by a neighbor hood association, and that bar security had to carry “a high-beam flashlight.” The Blue Moon’s owner refused to sign the agreement.
“If they want to kill nightlife in Boulder — make bars go away, make music venues go away — Tom Carr is your guy,” David Meinert, an owner of Seattle restaurants and bars and a leader of the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association, told Holden.
In Seattle, Carr “was going in and telling restaurants that they were not restaurants and they were improperly zoned,” added David Osgood, an attorney who defended several cases against Carr.
But at least one Boulder city council member said Carr’s approach to nightlife was part of the reason for hiring him.
Then-Deputy Mayor Ken Wilson, a resident of the often-rowdy University Hill area, said at the time of Carr’s hiring that he was particularly impressed by Carr’s ideas to regulate bars in a section of the city that over the years has been plagued with over-service, underage drinking, binge drinking and even riots.
“We have a lot of bars near the university and a lot of rental properties that become party houses,” Wilson said. “It has been a long struggle.”
City Council asked the three city attorney finalists about their strategies for addressing the problem.
“I felt that Tom Carr had a good, progressive attitude about holding the bars accountable for being good establishments, not over-serving and holding them to the law,” Wilson said at the time. He said Carr talked about his “good neighbor agreements,” adding that “we have tried to use those also, so I think he can help us with that.”
When asked whether the council was concerned about Carr’s history with nightlife in Seattle, Wilson replied, “I looked briefly at some of the reporting on that, and it sounded like he had a pretty strong stance, and some bar owners didn’t like that and organized against him. We saw his career as a whole and saw it as being positive.”
Wilson said the city may have influence over bars by changing land-use rules.
“We are looking at closing times and zoning rules and where you can put bars,” he said at the time.
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Fast-forward to 2013, and the city seems to be finally moving forward with that agenda. City of Boulder officials, including Carr, went to city council on Feb. 19 to ask for permission to implement an action plan to enhance regulation of bars using similar methods. Council members gave them the green light, for the most part.
Carr told BW in an interview that while the perception that he is the main driver behind the proposed changes makes for a good story, it’s not accurate. He says he is only one of many city officials involved in putting forward the recommendations, and they grew out of the findings of a community working group.
For example, he says, it was Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner who came up with the “bad actor” concept, the idea that instead of spreading enforcement and regulation efforts equally across all restaurants and bars, the city should focus its resources on the problem establishments.
Carr says the idea of cracking down on “bad actors” is supported by “good actors,” because it levels the playing field. If a bar is serving alcohol to minors or over-serving, for instance, it may be lucrative, but it’s not fair to those establishments that are playing by the rules.
“To be a good operator, you have to have strong morals,” he says. “If you’re the place where, if you have a fake ID, you’re known as the place that is not going to look too hard, you’re going to get a lot of business.”
He says the effort to strip the Beverage Licensing Authority (BLA) of its ability to revoke or suspend liquor licenses and hand that to a hearing officer is not an attempted power grab. According to Carr, it’s not ideal to have a citizen board working such long hours (a hearing on K’s China lasted about six hours) and performing an adjudication role, ruling on evidence like a panel of judges. For one thing, he said, it is easier to mount a legal defense of a revocation or suspension if that decision was made by a trained hearing officer rather than a citizen board.
He says he would not be gaining any control over enforcement efforts if there were a switch to a hearing officer. If it were the municipal judge acting in that capacity, that individual answers to the city council; if a contract attorney were used, that person would be hired by the city manager’s office, not his office.
As for his record in Seattle, he acknowledges that Operation Sobering Thought was controversial because, unlike Boulder, Seattle had not been doing checks on whether bars were following the rules when it came to checking IDs and over-serving. The cops arrested a bunch of bartenders and bouncers, and it made such a splash that to this day, Seattle bouncers are still telling customers they could get arrested for not thoroughly checking IDs.
“I got a lot of criticism for that,” he says, adding that he was tough when it came to prosecuting driving under the influence cases as well.
While Carr acknowledges that having an alcoholic father who died in an alcohol-related accident falling down a flight of stairs when he was only 14 years old affected him, he does not have a personal agenda against the consumption of alcohol.
“I’m Irish Catholic; I’m not morally opposed to alcohol,” he says. “My dad was an alcoholic. I saw what it does to folks. But I spent a lot of my life in bars.”
Carr says his primary concern is the negative impacts associated with the excessive use of alcohol, and when there are an excessive number of bars in an area, it can create competition that drives establishments to offer drink specials that can lead to overconsumption.
At the Feb. 19 meeting, several representatives from restaurants and bars questioned city council about the motivation behind the proposed crackdown, and at one point, council member K.C. Becker even acknowledged that the city shouldn’t be a “nanny.”
Stephen Schein of Half Fast Subs on the Hill said the council, if it was truly elected to represent its constituents, should follow the guidance provided by a citizen survey in which 75 percent of respondents said overconsumption is not a problem, and 86 percent did not support new zoning regulations for businesses that sell alcohol or operate after 11 p.m.
Calling the action plan “heavy-handed and unnecessary regulations” that is being driven by a small group of people, he asked why the council would want to “smash a problem that may not be as big a problem as presumed.
“Who are these bad actors?” Schein asked. “It doesn’t make sense to me. I feel like a target.”
Dominic Holden contributed to the reporting for this story.