Supervisors Approve Liquor Legislation

by Jacob Schneider on February 2, 2006

The Budget and Finance committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave preliminary approval to a law that would aim to decrease illegal activity centered around liquor stores Wednesday.

The legislation, which is sponsored by Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, would tighten regulation of nuisance laws and establish steep penalties for repeat violators, including the closure of particularly egregious stores. In addition, the proposal holds liquor store owners responsible for all illegal activity committed on their property—such as drug use, the purchase of alcohol for minors, and violence—whether it occurs in the store or on the sidewalk outside.

Maxwell said that in her Bayview district liquor stores are the focal points of illegal activity.

“I don’t anticipate or desire mass closures of liquor stores,” Maxwell said. “But there are repeated bad actors that have inflicted themselves on poor communities for years. They are serving the needs of drug dealers and those who are committing crimes and homicides.”

A strong contingent of community organizations presented testimony in support of the proposal, drawing on personal experience and statistics.

“Youth have easy access to alcohol,” said Dasha Bamaka of Youth Organized Against Tobacco. “Merchants don’t check ID because they could make a quick buck. They don’t realize the impact that they’re having on the community.”

Alcohol use is higher among youth in the Bayview than in the city as a whole, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Many said that it’s very difficult to fight such activity under current regulations. Among other challenges, the police department will not respond to nuisance complaints outside of a liquor store unless the store itself complains and store owners are afraid to incur the wrath of drug dealers.

“We have a store in the Tenderloin which for the last nine years citizens of our community have been trying to shut down, and yet these folks continue their illicit activities,” said David Villalobos, director of the Community Leadership Alliance.

But many merchants said that the legislation would overburden business owners.

“The problem we’re seeing is overintoxication. Someone in a liquor store selling alcohol to someone who’s already intoxicated,” said Leslie Hennessey, a storeowner. “As a merchant in San Francisco, I already pay small business fees and I have to pay for a public health license. A fee on top of that is usurious.”

A representative of the Arab American Grocers Association agreed that the proposal unfairly targets his community.

“We represent a community that feels very much isolated in the United States at this moment,” He said. “Most of our members run their businesses in a clean and efficient manner. What our community is looking for is fairness.”

Merchants also took issue with a provision that attaches nuisance complaints to properties not people. Thus, even if a store were to be sold, past infractions would stay on its record. But Supervisor Bevan Dufty said that the clause prevents store owners from transferring ownership to evade the law.

“If you allow businesses to clean the slate by transferring ownership, you’ll get in a shell game,” he said.

And not all business owners opposed the legislation.

“When my customers come to my restaurant I want them to feel safe and secure,” said Michael Scales, who recently opened a bar and restaurant in the Bayview. “Our business owners should be good neighbors and care about the health and wellbeing of this community.”

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