Devil's Advocate 

Is the OLCC Making it Easier for Bars to Serve Liquor?

Kimberly Mark-Villela—a liquor licensing specialist with the city's Liquor License Neighborhood Notification Program—usually alerts neighborhood associations when there's a new liquor license application in the 'hood. Last week, however, she sent out a different kind of notice.

This one warned of a bill in the Oregon Legislature that may streamline the license process, allowing all liquor license applicants "to operate immediately upon application for 180 days during the licensing process," Mark-Villela wrote. "This means that a new outlet, full or limited on-premise sales, can operate immediately."

As it currently stands, new liquor license applicants have to wait for their license to be approved before they can start pouring wine or whiskey—a process that can take as long as 90 or 120 days. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), however, can currently give some applicants—like those applying for a change of ownership or off-premises sales—a "temporary letter of authority," good for 90 days. This bill —HB 2170—would expand who can qualify for a temporary letter to include places like new restaurants and bars, and lengthens the time the temporary authority is valid.

"There are a couple of caveats. First of all, we'll do a background investigation, and not everyone qualifies for a temporary operating permit," says OLCC spokesperson Ken Palke.

But neighbors, not surprisingly, are not thrilled with the idea of letting new applicants start serving sooner. "This is nuts. Osama bin Laden himself could operate for six months and society could only pick up the pieces," Allan Classen, editor of the Northwest Examiner, wrote in response to Mark-Villela's notice. Other neighbors chipped in, suggesting a cap on licenses per neighborhood, or outright making fun of the "licensing-on-demand" proposal.

Despite the jokes and hyperbole, neighbors are concerned that their input in the licensing process will be diminished if applicants are already effectively operating. It's a lot harder to revoke a license, neighbors say, than prevent one in the first place.

The community currently has plenty of say in the liquor licensing process. During the process, the city has 30 days to make a recommendation to the OLCC about the application, and the city solicits neighborhood input on new applications, asking for letters of support or opposition to the application before making a recommendation. The city's recommendation is considered alongside other factors when the OLCC ultimately decides whether or not to grant a new license.

But the OLCC says the new proposal—though decidedly business friendly—is good for neighbors, too. For starters, neighbors can now see liquor applicants in action, giving neighbors something concrete to comment on. "It would be sort of a dry run, and that would also give some neighborhood groups time to watch, monitor, and give comments."

Second, Palke points out, the applicants have strong incentives to be on their best behavior. Not only can the temporary authority be revoked, but also the applicant has likely made a large investment in liquor, with no guarantee that they'll get a license. And missteps during the application process count against them: "The commissioners do take a closer look at violations during temporary authority," Palke says. "We think the benefits of this far outweigh the negative aspects of it."

Mark-Villela asked neighbors to forward any comments on the house bill—which already had a committee hearing—so she could pass them to the city lobbyist in Salem. Mark-Villela and the lobbyist did not return calls for comment.

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