If you took all of the columns written by me from the past year or so, put them on a wall, and then threw a dart at them —and, honestly, I am sure most of you do this anyway — you would probably hit one where I call for government regulation of this or that group or industry. This is because I believe that government regulation is preferable to letting businesses run wild. Properly written regulations which have the best interests of the community at heart are a good thing.
The Late Night Entertainment Establishment Ordinance under consideration by the City of Charleston is not. It is a poorly worded, incomplete, and pointless piece of code that attempts to do too many of the wrong things for too many of the wrong reasons. The ordinance lays out requirements for businesses that go far beyond any reasonable expectation and, worse, does not address the problem from a public safety standpoint.
In the first place, the ordinance's requirement that establishments must close their doors and windows after 11 p.m. in order to cut down on noise is ludicrous. Even worse is the notion that any noise "generated from an establishment ... capable of being heard within 50 feet of an entrance" is cause for the police to issue a bar a nuisance violation. Noise ordinances are simply not supposed to be written this way because they are entirely too subjective. A proper ordinance would establish an absolute measure of noise relative to the environment. This ordinance fails to do that. Instead it relies on the murky concept of "if I can hear it, it is too loud." On top of that, if the goal of a noise ordinance is to protect the people who live downtown, then it would be interesting to find out how many people live within 50 feet of any given bar.
Secondly, the Late Night Ordinance goes entirely too far in dealing with people once they are outside of an establishment. There cannot be a reasonable way for any particular establishment to meet the ordinance's inane request that they police on- and off-site parking areas. Even if bar employees knew where everyone parked, there is simply no way for them to cover that wide of an area. In addition, it is simply ridiculous to ask a business owner to shoo people away from their building 30 minutes after closing. Sure, most bar owners don't want people hanging out in front of their places of business after hours, but as long as those people aren't trying to get back in, it really isn't the bar's problem — it is the police's.
The worst part of the Late Night Ordinance is the way it attempts to transfer legitimate police functions — like patrolling crowds of drunken bar patrons — to people who are ill-equipped and possibly not even trained to deal with such matters. Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen may think it's a great idea to require bar security to undergo mandatory training, but how often is the city willing to train these people? After all, how much turnover is there in the bar security business? And do we really want to turn over large chunks of downtown to a private security force?
The concept of a bar hiring a private security force is not an alien concept. In fact, many big-city bars that do not want to manage a team of bouncers use the services of a private security team. Take New York City, for example, where this practice is commonplace. However, the Big Apple also has an excellent resource for bars and their security teams called the Best Practices for Nightlife Establishments. The guide does not mention parking, or shooing people off the streets at 2:30 in the morning. What it does address, however, are more serious issues, including how to deal with sexual assaults and how to assess a possible terrorist threat to a bar. These points are sorely lacking in Charleston's new ordinance, possibly because the ordinance isn't intended to protect anyone. In fact, Chief Mullen said so himself, telling The Post and Courier, "The reason for it is so that we don't have a bad event happen [that] is going to give Charleston and the whole area a black eye or make it appear that it's not safe for tourists and others to come down to the area." Really? Mullen's biggest concern is not with preventing a tragic incident? Instead, he's more concerned about the possible public relations fiasco that could result from a shooting or pedestrian accident?
There are certainly clear arguments for finding ways to handle the ever-increasing crowds of people on downtown Charleston's streets, but this ordinance fails in every imaginable way.