Booze Ban Nears Tipping Point, But Mayor and Others Not Sold
Monday, Sept. 17, 2007 | Like so many holiday weekends before, the sands of Pacific Beach were packed this Labor Day. Lifeguard towers barely poked through a sea of tanned bodies and makeshift cabanas. Chic, oversized sunglasses provided more coverage than bathing suits. Sustenance came in 12-ounce cans.
At 5 p.m., as the sun was about to set on another summer in San Diego, beachgoers witnessed the possible ending of another party, too.
The Labor Day hullabaloo — in which 15 people were arrested for their part in a frenzy that prompted San Diego police to don riot gear and close a major beachside thoroughfare — may prove to be the tipping point in the decades-long debate over alcohol use at city beaches.
So far, the fiasco has changed the mind of at least one San Diegan, beach- and bay-area Councilman Kevin Faulconer.
He abandoned his previous tepid endorsement for beach drinking and took a firmer approach after the holiday skirmish. Faulconer decreed that alcohol should be banned all the time from all the beaches in Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach and Mission Bay Park.
“Under no circumstances is it ever OK to have that environment happening,” Faulconer said. “We have an obligation to protect people at the beach, and what happened on the beach was not safe.”
With that change of tune, Faulconer now stands at the foot of a winding path of politics that he may have to travel for several months and, possibly, years before his proposal comes to fruition. It’s a route Faulconer avoided trekking in his first 20 months in office.
“Obviously, I feel strongly about this or I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said.
After failing to gain consensus in his community during his short tenure on the council, Faulconer also has some convincing to do at City Hall and — likely — San Diego communities abroad.
While the City Council typically defers to the council member whose district would be impacted by a piece of legislation, some opposition has surfaced in the days following Faulconer’s announcement.
The mayor and police chief, who would be in charge of enforcing a year-round ban, have been skeptical about the idea.
And the prospects of a liquor industry-led revolt against the ban, in which the question is sent to voters citywide, are strong. Just a few years ago, they helped kill a council-approved ban at the ballot box.
All of these obstacles stand in the way of a rule that is enforced at nearly every other beach in California.
Like free trash pick-up for single-family homes and 24-hour Mexican food, beach drinking is traditional San Diego fare. It’s vociferously defended as a social freedom in the face of attacks by critics that it risks public safety.
“This is why we live in a beach area like San Diego,” said Bob Glaser, a political consultant who has worked to defeat banning alcohol on the beach before. “We enjoy the beach and sometimes a cocktail.”
Four City Council members are in favor of a booze ban, but Mayor Jerry Sanders says he will likely veto such a law.
But for all of their failures to ban beach drinking as local governments up the California coast started outlawing booze from their shores in the 1970s, ban supporters have remained steadfast. They’re hoping the scenes of flying beer cans and rowdy chants that played out on national news programs and YouTube are advertising they need to prove their point.
“What happened Labor Day was just a concentrated example of the effects of alcohol year-round,” said Scott Chipman, a small business owner who has lived in Pacific Beach for 34 years.
Chipman is a spokesman for a group known as Save Pacific Beach, a grassroots organization that has pressured Faulconer and his predecessors to impose a ban. The groups has also complained about the heavy concentration of bars and liquor stores in Pacific Beach and helped defeat a 2006 proposal to site a detox center there.
But Faulconer’s constituents are far from united, as an equally organized and savvy group known as FreePB.org has mobilized the community to keep beach drinking legal.
The two sides squared off at forums Faulconer held in the beach communities this year. The councilman allowed a task force to endorse a number of recommendations about alcohol at the beach. Those included calls for more trash cans at the beach and for all Northern Division police cars to include drunk-driving test kits. However, Faulconer stopped short of taking a stand on a ban.
A ban was also tiptoed around by Faulconer and many of his competitors in the 2005 election, when politicos sensed the divided District 2 would be easier to pacify with nuanced proposals, such as a trial ban or further study.
But after Labor Day, Faulconer said he is ready to take a hard line against a party culture in the beach area. In addition to a ban, he wants to impose in his district a program used in neighborhoods near San Diego State University that fines landlords and tenants of party houses.
With a split constituency in tow, Faulconer will have to maneuver City Hall and possibly the San Diego electorate.
To pass a legislative ban, Faulconer will need four other council members to join him.
Recent interviews show three of his colleagues — Council members Toni Atkins, Donna Frye and Ben Hueso — in support of a ban. Two — Councilmen Tony Young and Jim Madaffer — said they are reluctant to support it, saying they don’t want to take away a privilege out of reaction to the Labor Day fracas. Council President Scott Peters and Councilman Brian Maienschein are undecided, spokespersons said.
The council will likely vet the proposal at hearings beginning as early as next month. Front and center will be the advice of Mayor Jerry Sanders and police Chief Bill Lansdowne, who say they are disinclined to support a full-scale ban.
Lansdowne contends that banning alcohol on the beach will push daytime drinking to other areas in the city where more damage could be potentially caused.
“The group that wants to drink and party will go somewhere else,” said Lansdowne, who stressed the Police Department will enforce whatever policy is approved. “On the beach there are no windows to break or fires to start. It’s pretty easy to manage.”
Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz said the mayor would likely veto a total ban if the council approved it.
“We think a total ban is an overreaction to a limited problem,” said Sainz, who noted. “It’s an aberration that can easily be taken care of.”
Sanders’ opinion mirrors that of other Regular Joes reluctant to endorse a full ban: The mayor likes to have a few beers at the beach, too, Sainz said.
The mayoral veto is largely symbolic, as the same five votes it takes to pass a ban could be used to override Sanders. But, despite its limited power, the mayor has seen his veto stick in two instances — against budget earmark to fund a homeless shelter and a ban on big-grocers like Wal-Mart Supercenters.
Even if a ban passes muster with lawmakers, it is likely to face a challenge at the ballot box.
In 2002, after a ban on alcohol on certain beach swaths was approved by the City Council, distributors and retailers of alcoholic beverages led a referendum to narrowly defeat the ban.
Most people close to the discussion anticipate voters will be presented with a similar chance to overturn a ban, should it be approved again.
“I see the exact same thing happening as last time,” local political consultant Christopher Crotty said.
Well-organized and armed with both thousand-dollar donations from the liquor industry and smaller contributions from the beneficiaries of alcohol freedom on the beach — casual beachgoers, taco shops, pizza joints and other businesses that line the beach — the ban was narrowly defeated, 51 percent to 49 percent.
Defenders of the ban, then known as Proposition G, enjoyed the help of anti-alcohol organizations and a fiery band of beach residents. But they lacked an official spokesman, as the council members who enacted the ban were absent from the ballot measure’s campaign.
For the ban to survive a referendum, Faulconer will need to be its champion, experts said. Other leaders, including Sanders, Lansdowne and Fire Chief Tracy Jarman would likely be needed too to show that the ban’s usefulness in protecting public safety outweighs the need for a beach-time pastime, experts said.
“They would have to come out endorsing it and be visibly active in the campaign,” Crotty said. “If one or the other doesn’t happen, there’s no way it’s going to be taken seriously.”
Glaser said people will be very reluctant to sacrifice a privilege that he sees as inherently San Diegan. “Once it starts to really be discussed, people realize they’ll be losing something,” he said. “People will tend to believe there is another way to think about securitizing the beaches.”
But others see the proliferation of images from the Labor Day melee providing a palpable counterweight to the issues of personal freedoms.
“When the two things clash, and public safety becomes an issue, you could start seeing things trending toward public safety,” said pollster John Nienstedt, who said he hadn’t gauged public opinion on the proposed ban.
Nienstedt also noted that, because a referendum will be citywide, it will be difficult to make the everyday realities of beach drinking — which are clearer in the mind of residents on the coast — relatable to voters across San Diego.
While ban supporters living in the locale see beach drinking as the cause of public urination, crime and pollution, others throughout the city may see having beers on the beach as weekend recreation, Nienstedt said.
“There will absolutely be different debates west of I-5 and east of I-5,” he said.
Faulconer said he thinks he has found an issue that will resonate citywide. If San Diego is seen as a destination known for binge drinking and violence, as seen in the video image relayed around the world after Labor Day, the city’s reputation — and its tourism dollars — could suffer, he said.
“I think images relayed nationwide from Labor Day was a huge hit against San Diego,” he said. “We want people to come enjoy themselves, and people aren’t going to come if they think there’s riots all the time. That incident was the worst type of advertising.”
As the largest concentration of beaches in California where alcohol is tolerated, San Diego’s reputation already attracts regular visitors from throughout the southwest who are looking to party spring break style.
That could be an issue that stirs up a sleeping political giant — the visitor industry. Hoteliers and related industries have played the part of benefactor before in elections when they had something at stake, most notably during proposed increases to hotel-room taxes.
Spokespersons from the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau and the San Diego Hotel-Motel Association said their organizations will be studying the issue in the coming weeks.
“It’s a two-edged sword,” said Namara Mercer, executive director of the Hotel-Motel Association. “There are ones who are going to be turned off if they think it gets rowdy, but there are also people who want to sit and have a glass of wine to watch the sunset.”