The voice of fun

Pub date May 4, 2010

In the midst of a crackdown on San Francisco nightlife, club operators, promoters, entertainers, and supporters of a vibrant urban scene have formed a new lobbying group that seeks to offer a united voice in favor of fun.

The California Music And Culture Association (CMAC), a nonprofit advocacy and education group, launches its first chapter in San Francisco this week.

Discussions about the need to organize have been going on for years among the owners of local nightclubs such as Bottom of the Hill, Mighty, DNA Lounge, and Café Du Nord. They were initially triggered by arbitrary enforcement actions by the California Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) and persistent noise complaints by a handful of NIMBY neighbors (see “Death of fun,” 5/24/06 and “Death of fun, the sequel,” 4/24/07).

But in recent months, conflicts between the culture-creators and enforcement agencies have come to head, driven by an aggressive crackdown on parties and clubs led by ABC agent Michelle Ott and San Francisco cop Larry Bertrand (see “The new war on fun,” March 23) and efforts by Mayor Gavin Newsom and other officials to blame youth violence on the entertainment industry.

“This is certainly as bad as it’s ever been,” said Guy Carson, owner of Café Du Nord and a CMAC board member who has run San Francisco nightclubs for 26 years. “We needed an organization that can speak for us.”

So dozens of nightlife advocates have pooled their resources to create CMAC. The organization is supported by membership dues and aims to follow a model similar to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which has more than 11,000 members and has been effective at advocating for their interests.

What’s at stake, Carson said, is San Francisco’s reputation as a vibrant, world-class city that nurtures its artists and welcomes those who come into town for parties and events.

“Do we want to look like Walnut Creek?” Carson asked rhetorically. “I came here because I like a vibrant arts scene, and that requires an infrastructure. It doesn’t happen in a void.”

He said City Hall and the enforcement agencies have lost sight of the important role nightlife plays in creating the city’s culture, and how aggressive enforcement efforts can push club owners — many who are “struggling to survive,” Carson said — over the edge.

“There is a void in the political and public perception of nightlife,” said Frieda Edgette, an employee of the politically connected firm Barbary Coast Consulting, which helped launch CMAC. Edgette added that the group’s goal is “to empower and provide a voice for a constituency that hasn’t had a voice.”

Beyond advocating for the interests of members at city and state levels, CMAC will serve as an information clearinghouse on best practices for maintaining good neighborhood relations and research into the importance of the industry to the economy.

“I’m not sure club owners do all they can to foster good relationship with their neighbors,” said Tim Benetti, owner of Bottom of the Hill, a former deputy city attorney, and current CMAC board member. “So we can play a big role in educating our members.”

Yet he said that a far bigger problem has been the polarization between the nightlife community and entities that try to demonize and scapegoat it for problems ranging from noise to drugs to violence. “There is an antagonism that has developed between nightclubs and enforcement agencies, and we want to end that antagonism,” Benetti said. “Right now, there’s no dialogue.”

Or as Edgette said, “We want to bring all the parties to the table to have a holistic discussion about nightlife.”

So far, efforts to open up that dialogue have gone nowhere. Attorney Mark Webb, who represents some of the victims of harassment and brutality by Bertrand and Ott, publicly called on Newsom to mediate the dispute in March. But he was rebuffed, so last month he filed a racketeering case against the city, arguing that police shakedowns of legal activities amount to a criminal enterprise.

“I was quite disappointed at the reaction to this case,” Webb said. “It’s fallen on deaf ears in terms of trying to get Newsom or others in power to deal with it. Now it’s just in the pile of lawsuits.”

Last week the City Attorney’s Office had the case bumped up to federal court, and Webb said he has subpoenaed police records and sought depositions from Bertrand and his supervisors. Another lawsuit, brought by promoter Arash Ghanadan after he was arrested and, he charges, brutalized by Bertrand in retaliation for filing an earlier complaint, is also being contested by the city.

“We are in a battle for Bertrand’s personnel file,” said Ghanadan’s attorney, Steve Sommers, who is also seeking to depose Police Chief George Gascón about the matter.

State Sen. Mark Leno has helped to mediate the disputes and has been in touch with ABC chief Steve Hardy. “I think we’re going to see some improvement,” Leno said. “I don’t know how aware he was of the activities at the local level.”

Those activities include citing nightclubs for not serving enough food, repeatedly harassing customers at certain disfavored clubs, pursuing noise complaints on behalf of particularly sensitive neighbors, and announcing a crackdown on bars serving infused liquors.

Leno welcomed the creation of CMAC and said that it will be an important voice for a vital and under-appreciated industry, both in San Francisco and in Sacramento, where Leno unsuccessfully pushed legislation to extend the operating hours of nightclubs a few years ago.

“I applaud this effort,” Leno said of CMAC. “There is great wisdom to advocating for this on a statewide basis.” 


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