Foon Rhee

Editorial Notebook: 4 a.m. last call a boon for bars, but will neighborhoods suffer?

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2013 - 8:25 am

It sounds innocent enough: Why not let some bars and restaurants serve drinks until 4 a.m.? Why not help Los Angeles and San Francisco compete for thirsty tourists?

Under a bill championed by Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, cities and counties could seek permission from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to have establishments serve alcohol two hours past the current 2 a.m. last call.

But anyone who lives near a nightlife district should be wary.

From what I know about the state ABC, I have serious misgivings whether neighborhoods would be adequately protected. When I researched a piece a couple months back about alcohol licenses in midtown Sacramento, longtime residents complained about noise, litter and worse and made a compelling case that the public input process is broken.

The agency issues and renews thousands of alcohol licenses every year, but rarely suspends or revokes them. With only about 130 field agents, there's no way it can closely monitor 85,000 outlets statewide. It's little comfort that ABC would make the final decisions after a "thorough investigation to determine whether the additional hours would serve the public convenience or necessity" when that provision is already used to get around limits on how many outlets can be concentrated in a certain area.

Leno's Senate Bill 635, which just started to get some notice last week, has the support of the California Restaurant Association. The first committee hearing is likely to be in April.

It's true, as Leno says, that there's no proof that keeping bars open later would lead to more drunken driving, though alcohol-related crashes are more frequent at night. It's also possible that later closings would lessen the last-call rush, though there would be no public transit to take patrons home. This matters in Sacramento, which has the highest rate of deaths and injuries in alcohol-related crashes of any big city in California, plus one of the highest rates of DUI arrests.

Leno says his bill offers cities a chance to create jobs and increase tax revenue. He expects only a limited number of tourist-related establishments that already stay open past 2 a.m. to take advantage of it, though there's no such restriction in the current bill.

The Midtown Business Association says it's unlikely that midtown bars would be included because of nearby residential areas, though again, there's no specific limitation in the bill.

There's no doubt a thriving nightlife scene is important to a city's economy and quality of life. But so are flourishing residential areas.

You can bet that lobbyists for restaurants and the liquor industry will have lawmakers' ears when this bill starts moving in the Capitol. Who, I wonder, will speak for residents?

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.

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