On the surface, it sounds like a reasonable plan. Mayor Martin Chavez wants to protect the children of Albuquerque from the "bad element" Downtown, so he asked the state Alcohol and Gaming Division to ban alcohol sales at all-age live music events hosted at bars like the Launchpad and Sunshine Theater and 18-and-over theme parties at the Colosseum nightclub.
Joe Anderson, owner of the Launchpad and Sunshine, says the regulation change could put him out of business, because the combination of ticket and alcohol receipts is needed for his livelihood to survive. A variety of folks, such as local musicians, a few parents and a throng of residents that could generally be described as supporters of the Downtown music scene, oppose the change as well.
The latest episode in the controversy unfolded in the standing-room-only City Council chambers on Friday morning, Aug. 26, where a state Licensing and Regulation Department officer gathered public testimony.
For the first 90 minutes, the mayor's opponents generally agreed that all-ages events afford minors a lawful opportunity to experience the Downtown music scene, especially in a town where kids don't have many options when it comes to enjoying the arts. And if bars like the Launchpad aren't breaking any laws, they should be left alone.
Anderson said that the majority of touring bands he books at the Sunshine and Launchpad request all-age audiences and afford Albuquerque increased access to touring bands that play smaller venues. He said his bars have no history of serving alcohol to minors when hosting these events and called the mayor's proposal "a grossly under-researched and overhyped crusade."
Sitting through nearly three hours of testimony from both sides last week convinced me that Anderson has a point.
Representing local law enforcement, Deputy City Attorney Pete Dinelli and APD's Downtown area commander Capt. Paul Chavez were the first city officials to testify, aided by another assistant city attorney, who stood between them acting as a friendly inquisitor. Right off the bat, two men capable of speaking for themselves instead answered questions from their colleague in an exchange reminiscent of a Senate UnAmerican Activities hearing, circa 1952.
Mr. Dinelli, who heads the Safe City Strike Force, offered up a list of vague assertions intending to explain that all-ages shows "create a volatile mixture" of minors, alcohol and all sorts of criminal activity. "We are taking issue with exposing minors to booze," Dinelli concluded. "It's the safety of children that's at stake."
Capt. Chavez also discussed the "volatile situation" that occurs when underage persons comingle with adults at bars. The result, said Chavez, is "a high degree of chaos" Downtown, especially once the show is over.
A cadre of state government officials followed, each talking about a range of alcohol-related social ills, such as college kids under 21 drinking in bars (not specifically all-age shows), repeat DUI offenders being the kind that developed a drinking habit early in life and alcohol-related unsafe sexual practices.
General counsel for the state Department of Public Safety, John Wheeler, even waved a photocopy of raunchy club flyers (the kind you get on your windshield Downtown that are shaped like a bookmark) promoting an 18-and-over "Phat-Ass Tuesday" party and implying generally that all-ages shows are a forum for sexual exploitation of minors. Mr. Wheeler's "exhibit" was designed by the Colosseum nightclub, whose owner, ironically, testified a few hours later that his club earns the bulk of its revenue from admission charges, not alcohol sales, and thereby would be unaffected by the regulation change and still be able to sell alcohol at its all-ages events. Of course, it's free to produce all the cheesy and tasteless bookmarks it wants, regardless.
The eminently quotable Bob Schwartz, a former Bernalillo County DA and currently Gov. Bill Richardson's crime advisor, explained that the Guv strongly supports the proposed regulation change. Sticking to a familiar script, Schwartz said all-ages shows at bars create "a very volatile mix, and alcohol is an accelerant," which too often leads to "an evening of mayhem." But where's the proof?
What bothered me was the pattern of diversionary, speculative and vague claims coming from the government side. No wonder kids distrust authority. Above all, the mayor's initiative is hypocritical.
For starters, Journal Pavilion, among other entertainment venues that serve alcohol in the presence of minors, would be exempt. Why? Because, by the state's definition, the Pavilion isn't a bar, it's a concert venue. But this is hogwash if the concern is all about promoting the safety of minors wherever alcohol and adults "comingle" in the same venue. To keep this point in perspective, according to a state Special Investigations Division official, more than 150 alcohol-related criminal citations were issued to minors at Ozzfest in just a single day last week.
Several weeks ago, when asked to explain why his proposal did not include Journal Pavilion, Mayor Chavez said, "That's not where the problem is." In fact, according to government statistics, underage drinking violations are far more prevalent at Isotopes Stadium and Journal Pavilion than at the Downtown entertainment district bars where all-ages events occur. If alcohol and minors create a volatile mixture, then how can government officials expect minors and law-abiding citizens to accept a rule change that makes obvious exceptions for these venues?
My point is this: All the grandstanding at Friday's hearing exposed this whole controversy for the purely political episode that it is.
Whether they are labeled bars or concert venues, any establishment repeatedly violating state alcohol laws should operate under the same regulations and face the same consequences.
Besides, the Safe City Strike Force has the authority to close Downtown bars that are repeat lawbreakers, and that's how the city should be addressing this so-called "volatile mixture." If it's one particular bar (or concert venue) that's cultivating a "bad element" and threatening public safety, then deal with that bar. But we don't need a regulation change that targets only smaller venues. What we need is enforcement of the laws that already exist.
That should be the first step in the process.