Thursday, May 3, 2001
At the March 27 Monterey Planning Commission meeting, Chris Shiner sauntered up to the podium and recounted an all-too familiar tale. One evening as he walked home from a night on the town, a Monterey cop approached him and asked him if he was OK. He told the officer he had been drinking and was walking--repeat, walking--home. The next thing he knew he found himself spending the night in jail. When he was arrested, he stood just 100 feet from his front door.
Shiner, who spoke during the public hearing period for a proposed alcohol ordinance, suggested that the shocking number of public intoxication arrests in Monterey--803 last year--might speak more to the police''s overzealous vigilance in hunting down law-abiding, albeit somewhat inebriated, souls than to any real problem.
"I''ve noticed a change over the last several years. There is an increased police presence," said Shiner, an 11-year Monterey resident. "It''s been very heavy-handed."
Nevertheless, the Monterey Police Department insists it''s drowning in alcohol-related crimes. Drunk driving and public intoxication account for more than half of the 2,495 arrests made last year. That''s why the department has forged ahead with an ordinance that would empower the city to shut down "nuisance" establishments irresponsibly serving or selling alcohol.
Currently, the power to shut down troublesome taverns rests with a state office, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission. When a bar racks up too many alcohol-related infractions, the ABC can suspend or revoke an establishment''s liquor license. But Monterey hosts some 200 licensed alcohol outlets, more than 250 percent of the state average, per capita. And, in the cops'' minds, the state agency isn''t cracking down hard enough on local "problem" bars.
"The ABC is just terribly overburdened," Lt Stan Perry says. "We have to compile all the information and send it to them. It''s a long and tedious process."
Under the proposed city zoning ordinance, the Planning Commission --which decides where alcohol-serving establishments can set up shop--could suspend or revoke a bar''s permit to operate in a given location if the police department proves that the establishment has become a nuisance. The ordinance defines a nuisance as "a pattern of disturbance or alcohol-related problems." Alcohol-related problems include DUI and public intoxication arrests, noise, littering, loitering, fighting, blocking sidewalks outside the bar, property damage, graffiti, or disturbing nearby residential areas.
The ordinance, says Planning Director Bill Fell, "clarifies the ground rules for the city and the bar owners."
Spirit of the Law
But bar owners--several of whom agreed to talk to the Weekly only of the condition of anonymity--say the new code does anything but. They point out that the statistics offered by police are taken out of context. For instance, the bars socked with the most violations--Long Bar, Mucky Duck, Britannia Arms, Planet Gemini and Sly McFly''s--also happen to serve the highest number of customers and would naturally suffer more problems. They also happen to stand on the two streets--Alvarado and Cannery Row--where police concentrate patrols on weekend evenings.
Moreover, they claim, the way the police monitor infractions seems unfair. The police determine the culprit bar for DUI and public intoxication arrests by asking offenders the last place they had a drink, discounting the fact that the drinker may have tanked up earlier at another bar or restaurant.
Lt. Perry says the numbers are just one factor in determining a problem bar. Nonetheless, he says, no matter how many customers a bar serves or where else a drinker got drunk, the bars are still accountable for the number of inebriated patrons that exit their doors.
The definition of "nuisance" in particular leaves too many gray areas for bar owners'' comfort. According to the ordinance, evidence of a nuisance may come from public testimony, citizen complaints or law enforcement reports, leaving an uncomfortable gap for interpretation. For instance, could one or two citizens who complain repeatedly be enough to put a bar out of business? The ordinance doesn''t specify. Nor does it quantify the number of offenses it takes to shut down an establishment.
And, as Chris Shiner''s testimony implied, maybe there''s really not a problem at all. Maybe the high percentage of alcohol-related arrests points to a fortunate lack of overall crime in the city and to subsequent attention being cast upon bar-goers by bored cops.
As one proprietor puts it, "We''re paying the police to come down here and find problems."
All of which has the bar owners, who already walk a thin line with Monterey cops, feeling extremely vulnerable. When the ordinance was first aired in public at the March 27 Planning Commission meeting, Ray Askew, owner of Ocean Thunder on Lighthouse, was the only bar owner to show up and convey his thoughts to city officials. On April 25, after the word got out, about 20 bar owners and managers armed with an attorney showed up to meet with police and city staff.
The result of this meeting was a 30-day stay of execution while the business owners try to get their heads around the ordinance. Yesterday, after the Weekly''s deadline, the proprietors met alone as a group to discuss the impending law. The ordinance is tentatively scheduled to come back before the Planning Commission for review in June.
"What we''re doing is forming a panel of our own," Askew says. "What we intend to do is go over this ordinance in its draft state and either come up with some way to police ourselves, or to work with the city in some way and come up with something that''s equitable to all of us."