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For Entertainment Purposes Only 

The Entertainment Commission is supposed to regulate S.F. nightclubs, but it won't — and often can't — punish scofflaws. The results are sometimes tragic.

Wednesday, Jul 8 2009
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Founded by promoters, DJs, and clubgoers frustrated with what they saw as the heavy-handedness of the police department's approach to regulating nightclubs, the coalition depended on club owners and others with links to the entertainment industry to fill its coffers. It has contributed $49,000 to various local political races between 2000 and 2008. Alan is its current chairman. The committee's greatest success, by far, has been the establishment of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission.

"Friends of mine were throwing events in warehouses," coalition political director John Wood recalls. "Sometimes those events would get shut down for lack of permits." A concurrent police crackdown on a few large gay clubs in SOMA led to a crusade among promoters, DJs, and clubgoers for a reformed permitting process that would favor club owners and warehouse partiers — an independent political body that, in Wood's words, "would babysit the industry" and shield it from the police department.

That crusade got a boost in 2000, when a civil grand jury report concluded that the existing system of police permitting was unfair. The grand jury recommended that permitting authority be turned over to a panel of department heads representing various city agencies, such as the police, fire, public health, public works, and planning departments. The idea of an impartial committee of city employees was scrapped, however, under lobbying from the Late Night Coalition, which sought a commission of political appointees that would include nightclub-industry representatives. It had the ear of then-Supervisor Mark Leno, a club enthusiast who has been a frequent recipient of coalition campaign contributions.

It was Leno who crafted the legislation that created the Entertainment Commission, an unprecedented governmental agency that would promote and expand nightlife — and also regulate it. It was granted the sole power to issue, suspend, and revoke permits to operate after 2 a.m. and host live-music acts, including DJs. The threat of withdrawing these permits had traditionally been the biggest stick police had for forcing intractable club owners into line.

"We were thinking, 'Who are the voices that need to be heard?'" Leno, now a state senator, recalled in an interview. He said the commission's variety of stakeholder representatives — two from the entertainment industry, two from the neighborhoods, and one each from law enforcement, public health, and urban planning — prevented the nightclub industry hijacking the permitting board to advance its own interests. "If you had all club promoters, or all club owners, the answer to your question would be yes," he said, when asked whether such a danger existed. "But they're just two of seven, so we think it's a good balance."


Today, that balance has tipped decisively. In addition to the commission's two industry representatives, three of the five remaining commissioners have industry ties. Justin Roja, the urban planning representative, co-owns the nightclub 330 Ritch. Erik Joseph Pred, the public-health representative, is an emergency-medical-services contractor for entertainment events, including Burning Man. Nikki Calma, who was recently appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom as a neighborhood representative on the commission, is a hostess and musical director at the SOMA club AsiaSF.

The two industry representatives have ties to many sectors of San Francisco nightlife. Audrey Joseph is a producer and former owner of the renowned Club Universe, who now works as a consultant for club owners and event organizers. Terrance Alan, in addition to his financial interests in Pink Diamonds and chairmanship of the Late Night Coalition, has done consulting work for BSC Management, which runs multiple San Francisco clubs. He also has a pornography company, New Meat, that sells videos of sexual encounters between amateur male actors — a gay version, if you will, of Girls Gone Wild.

Meko and retired police captain John Newlin are the sole commissioners who don't make their living from the entertainment business. "I sometimes find myself feeling very lonely up there," Meko says. "Given the way the appointments work, it seems like everyone else up there has a stake in a nightclub."

The full extent of commissioners' ties to the industry they regulate is difficult to assess, in part because no one keeps track. "We don't check, quite frankly," Davis says of commissioners' relationships with permit applicants who appear before them. "The onus is on them to recuse themselves." Both Joseph and Alan help put on street fairs that must obtain loudspeaker permits from the commission; Davis says these permits are typically approved at the staff level, without going up for a vote.

Davis says that 330 Ritch, the SOMA nightclub co-owned by Roja, has never been before the commission for disciplinary hearings since Roja assumed his seat in February 2008. That's not for a lack of police complaints about the venue, of which 10 were filed since last August. The majority concern noise and raucous crowds when the club lets out, and were clustered at the end of last summer. Davis says commission staff members have twice had meetings with other owners of 330 Ritch — without Roja present — during that time.

Roja, a former neighborhood liaison in the Newsom administration, says he doesn't let his dual roles as club owner and club regulator come into conflict. "My background is in the mayor's office," he says. "I'm very impartial in terms of public agencies that we work with, just because I've worked alongside so many different city departments through the years."

Local conflict-of-interest laws don't merely require recusals on certain permit votes. Public officials are also barred from using their office to undue advantage in private business ventures. For example, Entertainment Commission bylaws forbid commissioners from working as consultants on the permitting process for nightclubs.

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Peter Jamison

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