Ending the crackdown is as easy as ABC

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Sup. Bevan Dufty brought a surprise guest to the “Death of Fun” panel at SPUR that we each served on last night: Steve Hardy, director of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, an agency that has played a key role in the crackdown on San Francisco nightlife.

Hardy sounded a conciliatory tone, telling me that ABC agent Michelle Ott is no longer working with SFPD officer Larry Bertrand – the undercover duo has wreaked havoc on clubs and parties – and telling the large crowd that he's trying to heed the criticisms and change his agency's ways. Well, sort of.

“We're working very hard to create an image that does not draw so much hostility,” Hardy said, later complaining about the state budget shortfall's squeeze on his agency and saying, “It's wearing thin and there's no relief.”

Hardy said he was raised and still lives in San Francisco and served as an SFPD beat cop before a 25-year career staffing the California Legislature, mostly with the Senate Committee on Government Organization. Three years ago, he was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to run the ABC, an agency that has cited many SF clubs for noise complaints and not serving enough food with their booze, and private parties for serving alcohol without permits.

“We do have a tremendous relationship with the SFPD,” he told the crowd, as if that weren't already clear.

SFPD Inspector Dave Falzon of the Vice Crimes Division, another panelist, repeatedly emphasized the department's desire to improve communications with the community, which has organized against the crackdown by forming the California Music and Culture Association. And Falzon announced a new SFPD initiative to centralize and streamline its permitting functions for clubs and special events.

But when I was answered a question about what we'd like to see in terms of improved communication by saying I wanted the SFPD to finally grant the Guardian's longstanding request to interview Bertrand (whose brutal and illegal actions have been publicly condoned by his captain) and to directly address the community's concerns about the SFPD's hostility to nightlife, I didn't get much of a responsive answer from Falzon.

Two separate legal teams who are suing the department for its overreaching tactics are also seeking to depose Bertrand and his superiors, and to review Bertrand's personnel file, but the city has so far been stonewalling them. The consensus on the panel was that city leaders haven't adequately valued nightlife or special events or sent the message to various city departments that protecting the urban culture from bureaucratic excess is important.

For example, in the current budget crisis, most departments that deal with clubs and special events have adopted full cost recovery policies, and then jacked up those costs with demands that promoters pay for excessive police protection and other services. Just a few weeks ago, the Municipal Transportation Agency approved a budget that made full cost recovery official policy, thus jacking up prices for all events that require street closures or Muni diversions.

Who's to blame? Well, Dufty and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi (who also served on the panel) each laid the blame squarely on Mayor Gavin Newsom, who they say has abdicated his responsibility to lead city departments through the sometimes complicated balancing act between protecting the urban culture and being sensitive to neighborhood concerns, leaving the city essentially rudderless on an issue vital to maintaining San Francisco's status as a world-class city.