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Following El Cajon’s Booze-Restricting Example

Alcohol retailers don’t deny they have problems. But cities keep falling for their promises to self-regulate. Take a page from El Cajon’s book: Roll out the tough booze restrictions and watch the problems melt away.

Imposing El Cajon’s alcohol restrictions was by no means a passive transition. But cities throughout the county, especially those struggling with their own public nuisance issues, should ignore business opposition and follow suit.

Commentary - in-story logoIt’s a story we’ve heard many times before. The plea typically comes from associations that represent alcohol retailers – bars, liquor stores, nightclubs, convenience stores and sometimes restaurants – that have high rates of crime and nuisance-related activities clustering around their locations.

“We know we have problems,” they say, “but just give us a little time and we’ll take care of it ourselves.”

As we have recently heard, such businesses are often magnets for crime ranging from public drinking, panhandling and prostitution to property damage and assault. Many of those activities can be traced to irresponsible – often illegal – operating practices of the businesses themselves. Those practices include aggressive promotions that encourage over-consumption, sales to minors or already intoxicated patrons or simply a failure to adequately monitor the area around their businesses.

When left unchecked, these problems escalate and spill out into the surrounding neighborhoods, lowering the quality of life. They can also draw excessive amounts of law enforcement resources, draining public funds and making police assistance less available to local residents.

Alcohol retailers don’t deny they have problems. They can’t, not when increased police calls near their establishments, escalating urban blight and economic decline clearly demonstrate the need for corrective action. Nonetheless, they loudly object to the implementation of any kind of local regulation, claiming it will cause hardship, potentially putting them out of business.

Instead, they routinely propose self-regulation (or self-policing) as the only viable solution.

Case in point: the city of El Cajon, which has been plagued by unlawful activity around its alcohol establishments for more than two decades. As far back as 1994, the city formed a committee made up of local businesses owners, police and community-based organizations to find solutions. The group’s central idea was to use peer pressure — the example set by responsible businesses — to rein in rogue businesses and encourage them to clean up their acts. In other words, self-regulation.

It didn’t work.

Despite being given years to produce results, the city continued to experience the same problems.

By 2011 the citizens of El Cajon had had enough. They formed a coalition and called on the city to pass stronger alcohol regulations. In response, Councilman Gary Kendrick introduced a new kind of law, called a deemed approved ordinance, which had proven effective in other California cities facing similar problems: Oakland, San Francisco, Ventura and San Louis Obispo.

The deemed approved ordinance establishes a set of responsible operating standards with which retailers must comply; if not, the city has the power to suspend their privilege to sell alcoholic beverages.

Alcohol retailers in El Cajon objected, claiming that the law would put them out of business and insisting that self-regulation was the only acceptable solution. So the city put its new law on hold and, just as in 1994, assembled a committee to study the problem. This time they set a time limit. If the alcohol retailers couldn’t manage things on their own within six months, stronger regulation would be enacted.

Not surprisingly, nuisance and criminal activities continued unabated around alcohol businesses, just as they had for years.

It took almost two years for the issue to get back on the city’s agenda. But in August 2013, spurred by local residents and other business owners, El Cajon finally passed its deemed approved ordinance, the first city in San Diego County to do so.

That changed everything. Since then, the city has been able to take action against three different retailers found to be repeatedly violating the responsible operating standards established by the ordinance. And now the city is able to bring these establishments into compliance with the law – not put them out of business, as so many feared. Moreover, the alcohol-related crime has been substantially reduced, with arrests for public drunkenness dropping 35 percent and arrests for drinking in public down 26 percent.

El Cajon’s experience shows us that enhanced local control – not the dead-end path of self-regulation – is what cities need to maintain basic standards of public health and safety. As such, laws like the deemed approved ordinance are in the best interest of the public.

It’s understandable that businesses don’t want undue regulation. But the evidence speaks for itself: Cities around San Diego struggling with these issues should have no more foot-dragging.

Public officials should feel confident enough to silence the opposition and roll out these laws in cities throughout our county.

Daniel Skiles is former chair of the Spring Valley Planning Group and current vice president of the Institute for Public Strategies, a non-profit agency promoting vibrant, healthy and safe communities. Skiles’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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