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Clamping Down

Whether the community wants it or not, the OLCC is determined to tighten the rules governing the local music scene.

By Dan Atkinson

Finding an appropriate metaphor for the bureaucratic process currently underway at the OLCC is a difficult task. Freight trains don't quite fit the picture: although it may take several miles for a train to stop, at least the brakeman's putting some balls into it. If the five OLCC Commissioners were aboard, none of them would lift a finger.

Here's another try. Imagine five people set out for a drive one day, and countless gas stations, Denny's, and months later, they continue to drive, though they've known they were lost almost since the drive began. That is about as close as metaphor gets to describing the OLCC's ongoing quest to modify Oregon Administrative Rule 845-006-0040.

The so-called "Minor Postings Rule" governs where minors can and can't be in the thousands of alcohol-serving businesses throughout Oregon, in an effort to "send a clear message to the community and its youth that drinking alcohol is an adult activity, and that drinking environments are for adults." If you grew up here, you may now curse violently at it, for it is the sole reason why, when your family went out to the Olive Garden, you had to wait for a table on those cold benches near the front door instead of at one of the countless empty booths in that wondrous room called, simply, "lounge."

Back in the fall of 1999, the Commission caused quite a stir by proposing an alteration of this rule that would force all-ages concert halls and dance halls, such as the WOW Hall or Portland's Crystal Ballroom, to make a choice: quit serving alcohol or quit admitting minors. This rule change was, by all accounts, aimed at two problematic establishments: the McKenzie Ballroom and La Luna. Both have since gone under, yet the OLCC's tortuous legislative process has not. Not surprisingly, the original proposal, which could potentially have barred liquor sales at such flagrant offenses to temperance and decency as the Hult Center and the Rose Garden, was roundly shouted down. "There were lots of comments that came in on this [issue]," said commissioner Kay Kennet. "Not to exaggerate, but I think perhaps it would be in the hundreds." The WOW Hall, in addition to firing off a letter of its own, organized a letter-writing drive among members of its parent organization, the Community Center for the Performing Arts, and the community at large. Meanwhile, McMenamin's, the state-wide brewpub chain that owns the Crystal Ballroom, waged war on the proposal from its website. Brian McMenamin also served on the OLCC's Advisory Committee for the rule change.

In response, the OLCC has been steadily retreating on the issue, while refusing to give it up. In December, the Commission announced that dance halls could serve alcohol and allow minors, but only if they met certain conditions. They would have to ensure that the dance floor was well lit, that there was "no advertising, promotion, or presence of" alcohol in areas where minors were permitted, and that the area where alcohol was served was separated from where minors were permitted by a 48-inch high, solid divider. In addition, venues would need to submit a written security plan to ensure that everything stayed under control.

This was met with somewhat less hostility from the business community. Mike Kleckner, concessions co-manager at the WOW Hall, said the main problem was the lighting requirement: "How do you explain to a performer that they have to create an intimate atmosphere under gym lights?"

Which brings us to the latest version of the proposal. As it stands now, the compromise mandates-lighting, the 48-inch divider, and the presence of alcohol and alcohol advertising-have been reduced to suggestions that a licensee "may address" in their security plan. What started as a roar has been reduced to a whimper; in real terms this version of the rule change would have an imperceptible effect on the issue it hopes to address. The real problem is: why did the Commission roar in the first place, and why does it still insist on whimpering?

State Representative Floyd Prozanski is convinced that the rule change, in any form, is "unnecessary," and he told the OLCC just that at their March 13 meeting. Prozanski has a good eye and a thorough distaste for bad legislation. His last encounter with the OLCC was over a House bill attempting to regulate online liquor sales, a case he cites as a perfect example of "how a bad bill continues to move forwardInstead of just dropping it, they tried to keep it alive by modifying it this way and that way, and it was like, 'why are we going through this?'"

History seems to be repeating itself, this time within the OLCC. At this point, the rule change would require dance halls to submit a written security plan. "Well, the existing rule says already that [all licensees] must give a written security plan that convinces the Commission that minors will not get alcohol," said Prozanski. "And that's why it comes back to why do we need to change anything?" He felt that a rule change, particularly one as ineffectual as this, is beside the point. There were only "two establishments out of all the ones in the state" that were out of control.

"Now the McKenzie Ballroom is no longer, and La Luna is under new management, and so the OLCC's enforcement actually did what it was supposed to."

His basic point is that the OLCC already has the necessary rules in place to control problem licensees, a point he said the regulatory staff at the OLCC concurs with. "Their own staff is saying that they don't need anything," he said. Kleckner agreed fully. "They now have everything at their disposal to deal with a venue that's screwing up," said Kleckner. "It was kind of weird why they would need new rules."

The only people who don't see it this way are the commissioners themselves. "Stand up and be counted," said commissioner Kay Kennet. "I was one of the commissioners who wanted to see additions to the [Minor Postings Rule]." According to Kennet, the proposed change was instigated within the Commission-it was not requested by licensees, citizens or the legislature.

"We were having a real hard time dealing with [La Luna and the McKenzie Ballroom]," she said. "Many licensees feel that the rule as it stands is good enough, but some of the commissioners feel that if the rule [change] had been in place earlier, then those two particular dance halls would not have gotten out of control."

In other words, businesses that were already flagrantly violating existing rules would not have done so had more rules been in place. Once again, finding a metaphor for this logic is difficult. If there's a hole in the bucket, widen the hole? Or add more water? Whatever. The OLCC's legislative process lumbers on like a bear with an arrow in its rear. "It takes a good year to get a rule in place for the commissioners to vote on," said Kennet. "It takes forever." While the commissioners themselves are volunteers, the cost of having their support staff toiling away on this castrated and unnecessary rule change could be better spent elsewhere.

"The Commission has a very limited number of inspectors," said Kennet. "It's very difficult to follow up on, or to find and discover problems out there." Perhaps instead of creating more rules, the Commission should direct its resources toward an increase in enforcement. "What we need to make certain," said Prozanski, "is that there is strict compliance, and enforceability, of the existing rule."

In the end, after a full year of shuffling papers around, about all that will change is the addition of the term "dance hall," and some helpful suggestions on keeping minors under control. How a "lack of prominent advertising of alcoholic beverages" might help licensees maintain security is unclear, but the OLCC knows best. "I think the ultimate rule will be a really fair one, both for the stakeholder, for the customer, and more importantly, for the Commission," said Kennet. "When it's a venue that has adults as well as [minors], then we have to be especially careful. We're not called the Liquor Control Commission for nothing. That is our responsibility, and that is our goal."

Dan Atkinson, a junior majoring in Journalism, is a staff writer for the Oregon Commentator