A proposal coming before the Oregon Liquor Control Commission could tip the balance in the endless struggle between state and local authorities, neighborhood associations, Portland's 2,200-odd booze dealers and the sometimes-belligerent drinkers who love them.
It centers on a seemingly ordinary matter: the frequency of restaurants' and bars' liquor license renewals, which currently happen once a year. But it is anything but routine to some neighborhood activists. They say annual liquor license renewals are an important means of exerting influence over the character of their streets.
The Oregon Restaurant Association sees it differently, and if the powerful 3,000-member trade association gets its way, bars and restaurants will get a break from the yearly rigmarole. In October, the OLCC will consider the restaurant lobby's request to allow renewals every two years, at twice the annual fee. If the OLCC moves forward with the proposal, it could be in force by next spring.
M.J. Coe, president of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association, would prefer to keep the status quo. Annual renewals, he says, are "one of the few tools that a neighborhood still has in its quiver to root out troublesome neighborhood establishments—because we are losing tools.
"The restaurant association has been fairly good at knocking back regulations at the state level," Coe adds.
Whatever the merits of the two-year renewals, it's clear which side has more influence in the state Legislature. Alcohol sales will contribute about $155.8 million this year to the state treasury—not to mention the $556 million in annual revenue from the Oregon Lottery, which is played around booze. Together, that's more than double what the state takes in from the corporate income tax.
"At some level the state is dependent, perhaps addicted, to alcohol sales," says Dan Anderson, a board member of the Northwest District Association.
Anderson also helps lead the city's Liquor License Advisory Group, a City Council-appointed committee that has pushed for stricter bar regulations, with little success, for the past several years.
In July, Portland police reported 871 incidents of disorderly conduct and liquor law violations (the two often go hand in hand). Instead of committing violent crimes like aggravated assault or rape, which have been trending downward, Portlanders have been increasingly drunk and disorderly since July 2004, when police counted 582 such violations.
Yet others argue that the peace-and-quiet activists have little influence over liquor licensing simply because most bars are, well, pretty chillax.
"At some point in time you've got to agree that there's a lot of staff time being spent on non-problems," says Bill Perry, the ORA's chief lobbyist. "Ninety-five percent of the licensees don't have any issues. The question is, why do we deal with them on an annual basis?"
Perry contends that the annual renewals worsen an OLCC backlog of up to four months to process new licenses, a "financial hardship" for restaurateurs with impatient backers. And he rejects the argument that people will lose control of their neighborhoods without annual renewals. "Say there's four neighborhood associations you have a problem with—why would you stop two-year licensing everywhere else?"
So who are the bad apples? Police and staff with the Office of Neighborhood Involvement were reluctant to share unsubstantiated complaints.
Currently, the OLCC splits its annual reviews into two periods. Licensees south of Burnside Street are looked at every July. In December, time's up for the alcohol vendors north of Burnside.
This July, the city recommended rejected renewals for six southside bars (out of approximately 1,100). Only two, Bettie Ford and Beckens Winning Hand, have actually shut down.
And a few northside establishments might have headaches with neighbors between now and December, when annual renewals come around for them.
La Fortuna Mexican Restaurant and Night Club on Sandy Boulevard, for example, stands near a street of single-family homes in Laurelhurst. In January, Edilberto Ville, 22, was shot in La Fortuna's parking lot and later died.
Neighbors had already complained of noise, rowdiness, litter and fights, and had brokered a "good-neighbor agreement" with the restaurant. Results were mixed.
"It would get better, then it would get worse. Then, of course, we had the homicide," says Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association board member Gary Naylor. "Things are better now. And I don't know what all the reasons are. There might be less people coming to the place."
Naylor hadn't heard of the ORA's proposal for two-year renewals until WW told him about it, but he says such a change would suggest even less enforcement from the OLCC.
La Fortuna managers did not respond to messages by press time.
Last week, city officials asked the neighborhood associations and police precincts to notify them about booze-fueled trouble spots among the OLCC licensees north of Burnside, in advance of their annual December renewals.