Over the last several weeks, the Washington State Liquor Control Board held public hearings in Seattle, Vancouver, the Tri-Cities and Spokane, on a petition from the city of Seattle requesting a change to state law to allow local governments to petition the board to establish extended hours service areas within their local jurisdictions---ultimately, allowing some bars to stay open later. The current rule sets a mandatory closing time of no later than 2 am for all jurisdictions statewide. The liquor board is set to vote on the petition on May 3.

Last summer, City Council members Tim Burgess and Richard Conlin introduced a resolution supporting the petition. The petition, which was also backed by Mayor Mike McGinn, City Attorney Pete Holmes, Police Chief John Diaz, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and several King County Council members, passed unanimously. "We support starting this process. I think the mayor’s office has laid out a process that is methodical and careful," Burgess said at the time. [pullquote]Local control means just that. It lets Seattle create our own unique policy that deals with our local issues, and allows Spokane to do the same.[/pullquote]

“We believe that this initiative will strengthen public safety as well as promote a vibrant nightlife. We fully support this effort," Seattle Police Chief John Diaz said in a statement.

The existing mandatory 2 am closing times put a strain on police resources as every bar in the city empties out at the same time. Extending hours will help police deploy officers more effectively, lowering the cost of policing and increasing public safety.

At the hearings, a lot of the arguments focused on whether cities should extend service hours, and for and against liquor itself, instead of the actual topic at hand---whether local governments should be allowed to petition the board for longer hours in certain areas.

Many of the opponents focused on the evils of liquor, arguing that the state should limit access to the "devil's brew," with some actually calling liquor "anti-Christian and anti-American"---harkening back to Prohibition-era policies. Fortunately, the people of Washington State have already decided we should have legal access to alcohol. Indeed, in the recent vote on Initiative 1183, the liquor-privatization measure, they decided we should have increased access, making it clear that the liquor board should be focusing not on limiting access, but on mitigating and managing the risks associated with greater access.
Both proponents and opponents of the rule change discussed the potential risks of extending hours. But as law enforcement officials have noted, these risks already exist, and the current mandatory closing time in Seattle only heightens them. The current law is the real public safety problem, as it encourages binge drinking, puts a burden on law enforcement, and increases the number of drunks on the street and driving. If the board is truly concerned about public safety, it will listen to local elected and public safety officials in Seattle and allow for local control.

In Spokane, the LCB heard from local police that they didn't support extended hours. That's fine. Local control means just that. It lets Seattle create our own unique policy that deals with our local issues, and allows Spokane to do the same. The question the LCB was asking at the hearings wasn't whether or not anyone should be allowed to extend hours, but rather, what the rules should be that allows local jurisdictions to apply for extended hours.

The petition sets the bar very high for cities to apply to change closing times. Among other new rules, the board would require cities to explain why they want extended hours; require a statement of support from residents and businesses; require sign-off from local law enforcement agencies, which would also have to lay out the potential negative impacts of later hours and a public safety plan for mitigating those impacts; and mandate regular assessments of those impacts. If the board decides to extend service hours in a city, it could rescind that decision in the future.

In Seattle, the city would require bars to get a special license for later hours (with all proceeds reportedly slated for law enforcement). To keep the license, they'd have to avoid any problems with the law, present transportation and security plans, keep noise levels down, and create a "patron responsibility plan"---requirements that go far beyond the current rules for bars. The board can also limit the number of bars licensed for later hours in an area.

But the crux of the issue isn't actually how Seattle will mitigate the risks of extending hours. That plan won't come until later. The issue at hand is whether the state should give cities local control over bar closing times and let them create local policies dealing with the issues around closing times. These issues are different in every city. As the state's densest and most heavily populated city, with an internationally famous nightlife scene, Seattle is unique,  and has to deal with unique issues as a result. The idea the state has the same closing time rules for Seattle as it does for Lynden is a joke. So the rule change should be an easy choice.

The LCB should wait to ask more questions about Seattle's plan to extend hours and mitigate the risks until that plan actually exists. In the meantime, the LCB should focus on the question at hand—should there be local control, and if so, what should the requirements be for a local jurisdiction to apply to extend hours? Again, the rational decision here is obvious—first, allow for local solutions and control. Only then should we focus on further concerns about increased enforcement, increased noise, and drunk driving, in a proposal that will then be fully vetted by the mayor, police, and city council, with all the associated public hearings and debate.
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