November 7, 2012 | by Mark Lee
Will D.C. Council finally fix liquor licensing?

It’s been a long 10 years or so.

In the dog’s life of local small businesses, more like an eternity.

The protracted period that D.C. elected officials have danced around fixing the city’s much maligned and out-of-balance liquor licensing system remains inexcusable. During that time they have failed to reform the law bestowing both self-selected ad hoc “Gang of 5” license protest groups and small unrepresentative citizens associations with an infamously special intervention ability in the alcohol license approval process.

We’ll soon discover whether the D.C. Council and Mayor Vincent Gray will finally enact meaningful measures that result in real reforms. The clock is ticking with a looming legislative session deadline at year-end.

So far they’ve been content with offering only lip service while looking the other way. Ongoing inaction directly harms hospitality enterprises comprising the city’s largest hometown business segment and revenue generator, as well as primary employer – local restaurants, bars, nightclubs, lounges and cafes. It costs community small business entrepreneurs sums commonly approaching $100,000, inordinate opening delays of up to a year or more, and simply sinks some projects and discourages development.

What’s distinctly different this time is that residents and patrons are increasingly urging city leaders to buckle down and repair the licensing system, introducing order and evenhandedness to the process.

When chef/owner Jamie Leeds’ Dupont Circle restaurant Hank’s Oyster Bar recently suffered renewed opposition by a mere handful of longtime licensing objectors, forcing her to close half of her outdoor patio for the entire summer, the surrounding community rallied for reform.

Nearly 2,500 residents and patrons, including a sizable contingency of LGBT supporters, promptly sent emails and personal messages to D.C. Council members Jim Graham, who chairs the committee that oversees Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agency issues, and Jack Evans, who represents the area. They demanded Council reform of the unpopular protest scheme as well as objecting to the treatment of Hank’s.

These stakeholders specifically called for eliminating the ability of small groups to interject themselves into the process outside of the open forum offered by elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), which have legal standing to offer a recommendation to the ABC Board.

For local hospitality business owners, there is no end to the continuing renegade interference by the nay-saying few against the community amenities desired by a clear majority of residents throughout the city. Even after an initial license is finally acquired.

To his credit, Graham has created a context for addressing the current abuse of the system by these small groups. Last December he assembled a spectrum-spanning “ABC Working Group” balanced between citizens associations, ANC members, small business owners and advocates to discuss these problematic procedures. However, divided discussions failed to produce substantial reform recommendations fixing the real problems of the current set-up.

Confirmation that regulatory reform is required was the conclusion – but diddling around the outer edges was the outcome.

The usual license protesters and small protesting citizens groups quickly began railing against these timid and inconsequential proposals when Graham adopted them in his pending bill scheduled for committee review late this week. The bill will subsequently proceed to the full Council for consideration, allowing for revisions to actually repair the rules.

The overwhelming numbers who support robust reform – like those standing up for Hank’s and other venues facing narrow-minded obstructionists – have it right. Fans of fairness are correct to oppose a system that permits small groups to directly intervene, using the threat of licensing delays and the burden of bankruptcy as weapons, while everyone else is frozen out.

The local ANC is the appropriate and accessible community forum for all residents to discuss licensing applications and offer an advisory opinion to the ABC Board. The elected ANC members are accountable to everyone – and can be voted out if residents so decide. The rogue random protest groups and unrepresentative citizens associations answer to no one other than themselves.

The D.C. Council faces a critical test of its commonsense commitment to fairness in an increasingly sophisticated and dynamic modern city tired of these licensing protest shenanigans from a bygone era.

We wait to see if reform will finally come.

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

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