July 12, 2012 at 11:09 am EDT | by Mark Lee
Graham’s liquor protest reform is huge fail

D.C. Council members Jim Graham and Jack Evans appear not to have worked up the same appetite for regulatory reform of the city’s dysfunctional and archaic liquor license protest process as D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.

Gray dined at Hank’s Oyster Bar last Thursday evening during the Independence Day holiday as a demonstration of support for chef-owner Jamie Leeds in her ongoing seven-year battle with a mere handful of notorious Dupont Circle liquor license objectors.

Leeds and Gray commiserated over the beloved 17th Street, N.W., restaurant’s never-ending imbroglio with a six-member ad hoc alcohol license protest group. Last month’s forced closing of half the outdoor dining area while awaiting Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board review of a prior decision to terminate operating restrictions imposed by the rogue group in exchange for allowing the business to open in 2005 is costing more than $3,000 a day in lost revenue.

After more than 10 years of widespread complaints by both residents and local hospitality businesses regarding the arbitrary ability of tiny “gangs of 5 or more” and small pseudo citizens associations to directly intervene in alcohol licensing applications by restaurants and bars, D.C. Council member Jim Graham is offering up proposed legislation that fails to fix the problem. Evans, in whose district Hank’s is located, has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill, the subject of a Council committee public hearing chaired by Graham this week.

Graham’s bill, the “Omnibus Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Amendment Act of 2012,” offers 43 modest reforms affecting a wide range of ABC business categories. While the revisions represent long-overdue improvements in a number of regulatory areas, the legislation provides only limited and ineffectual corrections to the current stark inequities inherent in licensing protests.

First, the required proximity for members of an ad hoc protest group would be reduced from a geographic radius of 600 ft. to 400 ft. This minor revision would not impede a handful of naysayers from imposing their will on an entire neighborhood – including in the renegade war on Hank’s. It simply won’t make a difference and fails to address the central principle of fairness.

A meaningless proximity requirement ignores the big pink strawberry mojito in the middle of the room. A legacy of outlandish protest abuses requires Graham, Evans and the full Council to confront the inequity of allowing so much power to be granted to so few.

A second provision stipulates that if a business is able to negotiate an inappropriately named “Voluntary Agreement” with the area Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), or multiple jurisdictional ANCs required in some overlapping commercial districts, any licensing intrusions lodged by ad hoc groups or citizens associations would be dismissed.

This maze of manipulation mocks the myth that so-called “Voluntary Agreements” are not a compulsory obligation. Pretending that they are voluntary while further institutionalizing the only available path to licensing protest resolution is simply not a credible solution. Forcing local businesses to acquiesce under threat of licensing delay or denial does not restore order to the even-handed application of city law or reform an infamously out-of-balance system.

Meaningful reform would eliminate usurpation of equitable citywide governance to a patchwork of operating restrictions among localized businesses in particular neighborhoods. Short of that, however, is the need to identify an appropriate arena for neighborhood input in licensing matters.

Reserving community review to the open and accessible forum provided by elected ANCs accountable to all neighborhood residents is that remedy. Unless randomly assembled ad hoc protest cabals or small and unrepresentative citizens groups are prohibited from wielding inordinate power and are instead required to participate in a legitimate neighborhood dialogue, all residents are not permitted an equal participatory voice.

Anything less squanders the opportunity to finally repair a broken and discredited system.

Regulatory common sense with a side of political courage is on the menu. Whether Graham and Evans will order up a big healthy serving of both to share with their colleagues will be clear after the summer legislative recess at the time of full Council consideration.

We’ll know what’s on their plates when the final bill comes to the dais this fall.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

  • A post written, obviously, by someone who has never lived next to a bar.

    This entire opinion piece leaves something out of the conversation that is equally important – until neighbors who have actual legitimate issues with an establishment have a functional ABRA system with which to lodge complaints and get prompt resolution exists, the protest option is the ONLY option. As is, even simple noise complaints take OVER A YEAR to get adjudicated, and only result in paltry $500 fines. If there was an efficient system that could deal with the handful of bad operators quickly, then the good operators would not have issues. Instead of spending his time complaining that City Council is not passing out ABRA licenses like Halloween candy to anyone who wants one and promises to behave, perhaps he and the other operators could push for actual comprehensive reform, including swifter, stiffer penalties for those who are out of compliance. If residents felt they could actually trust the system and that rules would actually be enforced, we wouldn’t feel like we had to maximize our power using the ONLY method available to us.

  • Dude. You write literally the same article week, after week, after week. We get it. You hate VAs. Maybe the Blade can write on another issue that impacts business for a change? It would be nice to hear on a different subject once in awhile or, at least, a different perspective on this matter.

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