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September 4th, 2013 AARON MESH | News Stories
 

Underserved

Portland officials say a besieged OLCC won’t crack down.

news3_3944(beer)ILLUSTRATION: WW Staff
As Mayor Charlie Hales continues to target neighborhood livability, city officials say he’s not getting cooperation from a crucial partner: the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the state agency that regulates alcohol.

Hales promised this spring, for instance, to rein in the boisterous Last Thursday festival. 

The OLCC said it would send inspectors to keep an eye on open containers coming from overcrowded bars.

But as summer ends, Last Thursday’s chaos hasn’t.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find an action the OLCC is taking at Last Thursday,” says Paul Van Orden, the city’s noise control officer. “I see them walking around. It’s like, ‘Well, great. You’re out there. Not sure what that does for us.’”

On Aug. 29, during Last Thursday, two men attacked a Northeast 18th Avenue homeowner who had their BMW towed when it blocked his driveway—he fought back with a cordless drill.

The incident is just the latest example of Last Thursday excess. Over three months, city volunteers counted 265 people visibly drunk, and 25 people urinating in the street.

Yet at the Aug. 29 Last Thursday, OLCC inspectors issued only three citations—two for minors in possession, and one for an open container at a party bus. They also offered oral instructions to two bars.

Agency officials were unable to locate citations at previous Last Thursdays by press time.

It’s not unusual for Portland leaders to be miffed at the OLCC for not cracking down on problem bars as often or as quickly as they’d like.

But they say they’re increasingly bewildered by how little control the liquor regulators are willing to use to quash problems like overserving.

“Neighbors say their complaints go into a black hole,” says Theresa Marchetti, the city’s liquor licensing specialist. “We’re kind of left in the land of limbo.”

OLCC spokeswoman Christie Scott says inspectors are actively trying to solve city woes.

“Our folks are out there looking for violations,” Scott says. “And the fact that they’re not finding very many is a sign of what a great job the businesses are doing on their end.”

Portland Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson says commanders are “nothing but pleased” with the OLCC’s effort at Last Thursday.

But criticism from city officials places more pressure on an already beleaguered agency.

Last October, Gov. John Kitzhaber forced OLCC director Steve Pharo to retire. Portland-area lawmakers have submitted bills in the past three legislative sessions to give cities more power to shut down bars.

And grocers are mulling a 2014 ballot measure that would privatize liquor sales statewide—a coup they’ve been eyeing since Washington voters ended that state’s booze monopoly in 2011.

Van Orden, a 17-year city employee, says he’s seen the OLCC become more cautious since watching Washington’s fate.

“I just don’t see the same level of cooperation,” he says. “If I ever were to stop working in law enforcement, opening a bar seems like a wonderful idea, because the rules are so loose.”

Scott says the privatization battle isn’t hampering inspectors.

“Absolutely not,” she says. “There’s a big myth that we close businesses down. We don’t do that. We do have an interest in businesses that are up and running responsibly.”

Hales has wanted the OLCC to set stricter bar rules since his term as a city commissioner a decade ago. He resumed the fight soon after entering the mayor’s office this year, asking the OLCC to set a 10 pm curfew for bar patios within city limits (“Take It Inside,” WW, March 27, 2013). The agency refused.

“We are struggling to work in partnership with the OLCC to make sure reasonable laws are enforced, and businesses comply,” Hales says. “We’re not there yet.”

Scott says the OLCC is trying to help Hales at Last Thursday and in the Old Town Entertainment District. But she says most violations are hard to prove or outside the agency’s control.

“It sounds like the biggest problem that’s happening at Last Thursday,” Scott says, “is people bringing their own beer and walking around with it.”

She says the OLCC can’t cite bars for that.

“You’re trying to give an apple a ticket,” Scott says, “for something the orange did.” 

 
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