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November 10th, 2010 Jason Slotkin | News Stories
 

Bar Tool

How to discipline the tavern where everybody knows its name—in a bad way.

     
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The 720 Room and its rowdy patrons caught the attention of liquor regulators back in 2008.

Fights, excessive noise and, at one point, reports of gunshots prompted the city to impose restrictions on the bar’s hours and manner of operations in inner-Southeast Portland. And the Oregon Liquor Control Commission spent about a year trying to get owner Michael Pifher to curb the disturbances.

When that failed, the state took away the 720 Room’s liquor license in May 2010. Pifher had closed the club around that time, but only after stretching the patience of businesses in the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood to the breaking point.

“We found bullets and a lot of empty liquor bottles,” says Jeremy Washburn, manager of nearby Advanced Letterpress shop.

For cooling Oregon’s trouble-causing liquor establishments, this has been the state’s process: unenforceable recommendations that drag on until problems reach extremes.

On Nov. 16, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission will meet to discuss a new proposal designed to deal sooner with such problems by using “compliance plans” for Oregon’s rowdier liquor-selling establishments.

Under the proposed change, business owners who fail to directly and immediately address consistent or serious liquor law violations, from excessive noise to bar fights, could face the same punishment as those committing a first-time offense of serving alcohol to a minor—a $1,650 fine or a 10-day license suspension.

While OLCC regulators can ticket bar owners for serving alcohol to minors, problems like overserving a customer or unruly customers who spill out into a neighborhood are difficult, if not impossible, to ticket. And that leaves closing a bar down as the only enforcement tool OLCC inspectors have for such problems. But state regulators must document a history of “serious and persistent” problems, such as frequent violence or illegal activity. And it can take years to get the needed documented history of complaints to support this kind of closure.

The calculus behind the new proposal is that the OLCC could act faster, with attention-grabbing penalties short of a shutdown, such as the $1,650 fine or 10-day license suspension.

“If something happens that ensures and strengthens this process, that’s great,” says Sue Pearce, who’s developed agreements similar to compliance plans between the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood association and bar owners, including the new owner of the renamed Club 720.

Theresa Marchetti, who tracks alcohol-related complaints for the City of Portland, supports the OLCC’s proposed change.

“There’s a potential for problems to be solved and taken care of at an earlier date,” says Marchetti.

The city gets about 1,000 complaints a year from Portlanders about alcohol-related crimes and disturbances, on top of thousands of police reports. Marchetti says only about 5 percent to 10 percent of Portland’s 2,600 OLCC-licensed businesses are responsible for most complaints.

Portland police spokeswoman Lt. Kelli Sheffer says the Police Bureau supports the OLCC proposal.

Kara Thallon, spokeswoman for the 3,500-member Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, fears businesses would be forced into plans for problems like litter. The problem isn’t rules, she says, but too little staff or money to document and prove repeated violations.

“They have plenty of ways to go after problem establishments,” Thallon says.


FACT: The Nov. 16 meeting of the OLCC begins at 9 am at the agency’s office at 9079 SE McLoughlin Blvd. in Milwaukie.
 
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