September 20, 2012 | by Mark Lee
D.C. officials owe Hank’s more than an apology

Despite the city’s regulatory embarrassment and widespread public outrage, District officials haven’t yet offered Hank’s Oyster Bar an apology. They should.

An increasingly impatient public, however, is no longer in the mood for a mere mea culpa.

D.C. residents continue to wait for elected officials to fix the long festering mess of an alcohol licensing protest process that allowed a handful of residents to wage an exasperating seven-year-long battle against the beloved community eatery. It was a war of attempted attrition that began even before the restaurant opened in 2005.

Only late last week was Hank’s permitted to reopen its full outdoor dining area. Given the relentless obstinacy of the ad hoc “gang of 5” license protesters, it may not yet be over.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray spent an evening during the Independence Day holiday dining at the Dupont Circle Hank’s location, near the corner of 17th and Q streets, to signal his support. Gray spoke with restaurateur and chef Jamie Leeds regarding the impact of the ongoing regulatory protest on her enterprise and that of similar renegade objectors throughout the city.

A welcomed gesture, but he hasn’t been heard from since.

D.C. Council members Jim Graham, chair of the Council committee overseeing alcohol licensing matters, and Jack Evans, representing the popular neighborhood establishment’s district, were bombarded with messages calling for a change in city regulations. Not only advocating fairness for Hank’s, but also demanding overdue reform to repair the city’s dysfunctional and out-of-balance licensing process.

Not much resulted from that either, and their Council colleagues continue to look away.

They should turn their heads in shame – realizing the deleterious effect on the city’s economy and tax revenues, if nothing else – but no one is offering any real solutions.

In addition, although the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board again laudably decided in Hank’s favor, it couldn’t even manage to comply with the statutory requirement to rule on the matter within a mandated 90-day period. This despite board chair Ruthanne Miller’s public commitment at a June 13 hearing pledging to expedite a decision due to the recognized economic hardship being borne by the business in the interim.

The five-member ABC board failed to meet its legal obligation – issuing an order, dated the day prior, two days after the deadline.

Alcohol-licensed businesses are fined $50 per day for failing to renew a license on time. Perhaps each ABC board member should whip out their checkbook and provide Hank’s with a $100 payment for their own violation of D.C. law.

Even if they were to do so, those five-hundred-dollars wouldn’t begin to compensate the restaurant for being denied use of half of its outdoor patio during the entire summer season. Proprietor Leeds has indicated that the business lost more than an average of $3,000 for each day awaiting adjudication. A pittance from board members also wouldn’t replenish the wallets of the neighborhood employees with fewer shifts and lesser earnings, or those without work.

D.C. law permits notorious “gangs of 5 or more” and small unrepresentative citizens groups to directly intervene in the licensing process. Both are allowed to brandish the weapon of an inappropriately named “Voluntary Agreement” and cavalierly wave it around like a magical wand of obstruction. They abuse the process to threaten license delay and denial in order to force unpopular operating restrictions on community small businesses.

There is no legitimate justification for not requiring these groups to participate like everyone else in the established public forum provided by elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) open to all stakeholders. Why bestow special powers to self-anointed czars?

Graham has opened the door to remedial action by introducing a bill, co-sponsored by Evans. Their timid legislative draft, however, falls far short of a solution and fails to adequately address the inherent problems of the city’s licensing scheme. Yet it does provide an opportunity for much-needed reform.

Until the city precludes the ability of random ad hoc protest groups and serial objector citizens associations from single-handedly interjecting themselves into the liquor licensing process, nothing will change.

Tinkering around the edges ain’t gonna fix it.

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

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