The ongoing controversy over whether certain nightclubs should be licensed and regulated by the city received what some might consider a typically Seattle solution: By a vote of 5-4, the City Council decided not to decide licensing nightclubs, putting off the issue until next September and a year of observation, study and, some might argue, challenge to clubs to shape up.
The idea of licensing particular nightclubs - in short, those places seeming to attract a more violent clientele, some given to gun play - was pitched by Mayor Greg Nickels in response to citizen outrage sparked by several shootings in the vicinity of late-night hot spots like the former Mr. Lucky in Queen Anne and Tommy's Nightclub & Grill in the University District.
After the council's vote on Sept. 17 to forego nightclub licensing for one year, Nickels struck a note of alarm, noting that "a majority of council members today chose to wait another year before deciding whether to hold club owners accountable for the safety of their patrons.
"The council's delay," the mayor went on, "will put people at risk, and voting 'maybe' won't ensure that we have a safe and vibrant nightlife in Seattle."
Adding to the nightclub licensing controversy was the revelation in the press of a 10-day sting operation by the Seattle Police Department (SPD), concluded the week of Sept. 10 and resulting in the arrest of 28 bartenders and bouncers for violating liquor laws at clubs around the city.
Some critics of Nickels' nightclub legislation have suggested that the sting was politically motivated and timed to anticipate the City Council's vote on the licensing bill. "Operation Sobering Thought" - which involved sending minors into establishments to buy alcohol, some of them accompanied by undercover SPD officers - led to warrants being served to employees at Sugar on East Pike Street.
THE PROPOSED LEGISLATION
Under the proposed legislation (Council Bill 115986), nightclubs with a capacity of 200 patrons or more would require a special bill to operate.
A nightclub's license would be subject to review upon any number of violations, including incidents of noise disturbance or patron violence.
If an establishment failed to take reasonable measures to prevent violence on its premises, its license could be revoked by the mayor.
This proposed legislation previously had been passed by the city's Economic and Development Neighborhoods Committee (EDNC), chaired by City Councilmember Sally Clark, by a divided vote of 2-1, and sent along to the council.
The one-year delay - or, as some have referred to it, reprieve - of the proposed legislation leaves the potential of mandatory licensing up in the air.
The licensing requirement would have to be put to yet another council vote next September, meaning there is a possibility that the issue may not be reconsidered at all.
The City Council did approve, by a vote of 6-3, the imminent creation of a nightlife council comprised of city officials and nightclub owners.
This commission - the particulars of which have yet to be hammered out - will consider issues relevant to the city's nightclub scene, as well as make recommendations to the mayor and the council at large.
City Councilmember Nick Licata called last week's vote by the council "the best scenario," and he said he was especially pleased with the creation of a nightlife council: "I think at the core of a long-term solution is the existence of a nightlife commission."
Licata said the ordinance was worded in such a way to give the commission a high degree of influence among the city's nightclubs.
"I say that because, in this scenario, the commission will be reviewing data and then making recommendations," Licata pointed out, adding that it's important that both the mayor and the council need to "pay attention to that recommendation."
After a year's time, Licata said, the council will convene and review the year's data. "If problems have not gone away," he said, "then we can say, 'Fine, then we need this license.'"
NOT THE SOLUTION
Licata explained that, as they exist, the rules regulating nightclubs "have some teeth in them."
Nonetheless, he emphasized the cooperative element of the commission in its role as mediator in the sometimes-strained relationships between nightclubs and their surrounding neighborhoods: "If the commission also works, it doesn't just review the data but it serves as a conduit for the neighborhoods and the nightclubs to hopefully work out their problems before they become insurmountable."
Licata said that, as far as the proposed license is concerned, much of the dialogue has been off-base: "You can't take the license legislation out of context. You can't think of it as a silver bullet that's going to kill the werewolf. It's just one part of a larger, comprehensive strategy."
Licata added that much of the discussion of the licensing legislation "became symbolic of tolerance or intolerance of nightclubs," which tended to divide the two sides and play them off one another in an atmosphere of heightened emotions.
"I don't think that approach is accurate, and I think it's misleading," he said.
The council member said he's feeling cautiously optimistic about the council's decision not to enact the licensing requirement.
"I feel pretty good," Licata said. "The unknown variable here is the willingness of the mayor to work with the commission. I'm hoping he will see the usefulness of that approach."
Though the details and exact composition of the nightclub commission have yet to be worked out, Licata said he's sure "it will be a very engaged commission."
Associate editor Rick Levin can be reached at email@example.com or 461-1284.