Local music fans packed the Oregon Liquor Control Commission's (OLCC) drab meeting room last Thursday morning, December 13, in eager anticipation of the monthly commission meeting.
The fire commissioners were slated to consider changes to the rule regarding minor postings—those signs in bars and venues that lay out the policy of when minors are or aren't allowed inside. The new rule would create a sixth kind of minor posting, which would allow qualified venues—those that aren't primarily a place to sit and drink—to submit a control plan that could let underagers enjoy the venue's entertainment if the venue could show "that alcohol and minors aren't going to be mixing in an uncontrolled way," OLCC Rules Coordinator Jennifer Huntsman explained to the board.
It was the culmination of months of work from all-ages advocates such as Mercury columnist Cary Clarke, and musicians' advocates like Bruce Fife of Musicians' Union, Local 99, who were on hand to testify in favor of the rule change.
By noon, their hopes were dashed.
In a 3-2 vote, following two hours of testimony and often-argumentative questions from the commissioners, the board opted not to make the change (they did, however, make a tiny tweak to the existing rule that will allow patrons at venues like symphony halls to tote their cocktails back to their seats).
The commissioners raised concerns about the OLCC's ability to enforce the control plans, despite testimony from Linda Ignowski, the OLCC's enforcement and field operations director, who said that the new rule would give inspectors—who are already popping into these venues—more authority. "This really has teeth," she said. "We have no teeth right now."
Other commissioners—particularly Bill Flinn, who represents Eastern Oregon—seemed perplexed on what sort of spaces minors might be allowed to patronize. Though music advocates and Huntsman made it clear that places like sports bars, taverns, and drinking-heavy nightclubs wouldn't qualify—any place where drinking is the primary activity still wouldn't be able to admit minors—Flinn expressed confusion.
"When you use the word 'venue,' what kind of venues are you talking about?" he asked Clarke during his testimony. The board seemed unfamiliar with Portland venues such as the ones Clarke cited as examples where these control plans could work—such as Valentine's downtown, and Ground Kontrol in Old Town. Places such as these focus on smaller music acts, with some alcohol being sold to supplement the space's income.
After the hearing, Clarke said it seemed as if the board—with the exception of Commissioner Bob Rice, who attended public hearings on the issue—hadn't done their homework, and didn't realize the limited number of venues where the new minor posting might apply.
Indeed, Board Chair Philip Lang chastised music advocates just before the vote, warning that most current licensees—those with the strictest kind of minor posting—wouldn't be able to admit underagers.
"Seventy-five to 90 percent of [spaces] are probably going to fall in that category. It's not going to be the answer you people think it is," he said.
There was a small silver lining to the hearing—perhaps swayed by the amount of passionate public testimony on the issue (hundreds commented on the issue, with very few opposed), the commissioners indicated they'd be open to reconsidering the rule change when they meet again on Valentine's Day.