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Originally published Thursday, April 5, 2012 at 4:46 PM

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Whenever they close, it's time to regulate Seattle nightclubs

For the sake of public safety, the city of Seattle should license nightclubs before extending their hours, writes former City Attorney Mark Sidran.

Special to The Times

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THE state Liquor Control Board is considering a controversial proposal by Seattle to allow nightclubs to serve alcohol past the current 2 a.m. limit. By allowing staggered closing hours, the city argues that serving alcohol until 3 or 4 a.m. can help reduce the disorder and mayhem that periodically plagues Seattle's club scene. Opponents counter that extending hours will create more problems than it solves.

Both sides are right, extended hours may ease some problems and exacerbate others, but they miss the more important point; it doesn't matter when the doors close if the city can't control the bad things that can happen when they do. Only city licensing can provide the regulatory control and revenue to prevent problems. Unless Seattle shows the liquor board it has what it takes to protect public safety, the board should reject extending hours.

Cities licensing nightclubs is not a new idea. San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston and others have licensed clubs for decades and for very good reason: It's a risky business. The sound of music should not include gunfire and boisterous crowds blocking streets, not to mention homicides.

Although most clubs are run responsibly, some are not. Setting sensible standards to protect the public from the known risks of bad business practices is not just common sense; it is a fundamental responsibility of government and clearly within a city's legal authority apart from any state liquor license.

For many years Seattle has tried to meet this responsibility by using collaborative task forces, "best practices guides," code enforcement, public-nuisance lawsuits and massive police deployments. Why not licensing? Apparently because the clubs oppose additional regulation and the attendant fees, while City Hall lacks political will. They argue that licensing would threaten Seattle's vibrant nightlife. But L.A, New York and San Francisco seem adequately vibrant despite licensing their clubs.

Ironically, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn told the liquor board that later closing hours should be accompanied by "strict requirements that would include security and training of nightclub staffs" and submitted a report finding that in jurisdictions that allowed extended hours "the most important element was how licenses and bars are controlled, managed and regulated." [Seattle Times, News, March 12.]

This is exactly right whatever the closing time, but the city could do much of this regulation by licensing clubs itself. Most club-related problems occur off premises on adjacent city streets and sidewalks. It is odd that the city asks the board to impose regulations it is unwilling to impose itself and yields control over enforcement to the board, yet continues to bear the cost of dealing with problem clubs.

Responding to problem clubs costs money. The city can best recover some of these costs through licensing fees. Those who make a buck in the club business shouldn't simply pass the buck for public safety to the police and taxpayers for problems they generate and could prevent. When we have to pay "user fees" to enjoy our state parks, isn't it time for club users to help pay for the public costs associated with their entertainment?

Whatever time the clubs close, when the mayor proclaims a "public-safety emergency" due to a spike in homicides and bemoans that we can't afford to hire more cops, while routinely dispatching thinly stretched police to "club patrol," it's past time for the city to ask clubs to help pay for assuring Seattle's nightlife is vibrant and safe.

Effective nightclub regulation requires a partnership between the city and the liquor board. Before extending hours, Seattle should do its part through a city licensing system that meets the mayor's stated requirements.

Mark Sidran is a former Seattle city attorney and past chairman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. He currently is a consultant doing primarily energy-related work.

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