They want more money so they can do more of this?

So I know that in yesterday’s post, I promised some positive suggestions for today, but alas, I’m faced with an unexpected and pressing deadline for work that I’m actually getting paid for, so you guys will just have to wait until tomorrow for that. In the meantime, you’ll have to put up with just a little more whining. Sorry.

So, the Oakland Police Department has this thing called the Alcoholic Beverage Action Team, or ABAT. Basically, they’re the fun police.

Okay, that’s a little unfair. The idea behind ABAT is basically that they help prevent businesses in possession of a liquor license from being a nuisance. ABAT is funded partly by a $1500 annual fee paid by all alcohol-selling businesses, but mostly by grants – some from the State Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, some from the County Health Department. They use the money to pay for the overtime costs associated (for both sworn officers and civilian support staff) with their tasks, and also to pay underage decoys to assist with their sting operations. The idea is that we can reduce the number of problem liquor stores if we hunt down and fine the ones selling liquor and cigarettes to minors.

So in their most recent report (PDF) to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, here’s what ABAT listed as their activities for the previous year:

  • Conducted over 405 Annual Inspections and 125 re-inspections.
  • Conducted 75 bar check operations.
  • 32 re-inspection fees were charged to operators for failure to comply with State and Local laws. These fees generated $6,400.00
  • Conducted 166 decoy operations, resulting in 39 sales to a minor (24% sale rate).
  • Made 2 felony arrests.
  • Issued 55 citations for public intoxication/open container in front of liquor stores.

Okay…fine. I mean, honestly, I’m still a little too close to my own high school days to get all that worked up personally about underage drinking and smoking, but I’m certainly not going to complain about OPD trying to make sure that businesses comply with age laws either.

But ABAT’s activities are not limited to stopping underage alcohol and tobacco sales. They’re also the ones who gave my friend a ticket for smoking outside while not violating any law. For those who missed the story, this happened on a Friday evening adjacent to an actual crime scene. (BTW, my friend did not end up having to pay…so far.)

Anyway, regardless of who pays for it, I have long resented the fact that we use our extremely limited police resources to run around town hunting for outdoor smokers to ticket and similar bullshit that, I’m sorry, is just not the problem in Oakland.

But when I returned to Oakland yesterday after a blissful weekend away, I heard something about ABAT that makes the outdoor smoking manhunt seem downright reasonable. Apparently, they spent Saturday night going around to local bars and issuing fines to a bunch of spots that had DJs and no cabaret license.

The Municipal Code’s definition of a cabaret is as follows (Sec. 5.12.010):

A “cabaret” shall be construed to include any place where the general public is admitted, where entertainment is furnished by or for any patron or guest present upon the premises, including, but not limited to singing, vaudeville and dancing, and where liquid refreshments or foods are sold; provided, however, that any place where entertainment is furnished by the mechanical or electronic reproduction of pre-recorded music or radio broadcasts or by motion pictures, shall not be construed to be a cabaret within the meaning of this section unless dancing privileges are afforded in connection therewith.

Now, the idea behind this is that you need to get a special license to have live music. I think this is annoying, but wev, I understanding the reasoning behind it. And I wouldn’t have any problem with it at all if the City didn’t make it so damn difficult to get the stupid license in the first place. So, it’s the City’s position that you need a cabaret license not just for live music, but also for DJs. I understand the reasoning behind this as well. If you want to open a big dance club, you’re going to have all the same associated issues as you would if you were having bands play every night. So for dance clubs with DJs, it makes sense.

What does not make sense is that the City considers all bars with DJs to be cabarets, including those that do not have dance floors. It’s still considered live entertainment, even though what you’re talking about is basically some guy sitting in a corner pressing buttons on a laptop while people ignore him all night. I’m sorry, this just a stupid requirement that places a totally unnecessary burden and cost on local businesses. But beyond that, just…OMFG. This is what we have police officers doing on a Saturday night? How is this a good use of resources?

6 thoughts on “They want more money so they can do more of this?

  1. Max Allstadt

    They shut down Mama Buzz’s live music! 6 days before Art Murmur!

    This cabaret law is a great way to stifle small businesses in this city. We need a common sense cabaret law. Cabarets have impacts, which need to be controlled. But this is ridiculous. Mama Buzz has acoustic shows, holds 50 people tops, and closes at 10. This simply should not require any additional permit of any kind. We need to change the law.

    What’s more, we still have a dumb law on the books that restricts cabarets from being near churches. This is a FLAGRANT violation of the principle of separation of church and state. It is also totally foolish because cabarets and churches are rarely if ever active at the same time. This rule needs to be eliminated immediately. An empty church suffers no harm from a cabaret.

    We need a common sense cabaret law. We need one that acknowledges scale. Mingles and Mama Buzz are not the same thing and should not be subject to the same regulatory regime.
    There should be different rules for establishments under X square feet. Licensing fees should be pro-rated in some way by the occupancy limit. If you want to have 700 people, your fee should be WAY bigger than a coffee shop that holds 30. And there should be a minimum size beneath which no license whatsoever is required. Fine them for noise violations, sure, but requiring a permit for one person to sing to 30 others, no matter where it is… that’s unamerican. You don’t get to tell me where I can and cannot sing.

    Meanwhile Dogtown burns, pregnant women and four year-olds get shot, and our politicians won’t even be available for us to yell at for another two weeks.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    Well put, Max.

    The Council made some modifications to the cabaret ordinance last year, including allowing licenses within 300 feet of schools, libraries, and churches at the discretion of the City Administrator. But the reforms did not go nearly far enough and did not get at the root problem of the ordinance, which is that, in attempting to regulate a certain type of establishment, it places a totally undue burden on local small businesses.

    At the same time as they amended the ordinance as mentioned above, the Council voted to raise the application fee for a cabaret license to $600. During the Public Safety Committee discussion of the issue, Jean Quan explained her reasoning like this: “Cabarets make a lot of money. They can afford it.”

  3. Max Allstadt


    Ms. Quan… Mama Buzz does not make a lot of money. The performers play for tips. There’s no cover. There are 30 people in a room listening politely. This should not be considered a cabaret, but for some crazy reason it is.

    Many other coffee shops and beer&wine only establishments do not make a lot of money. One way to help them make a little more money is to make it easy for the small ones to have live performances. The easier we make it for Oaklanders to engage in acts of free expression, the more we’ll attract people from nearby cities to our businesses.

    And this is not just about hipsters. Mama Buzz is valuable across demographics. I had a chat with an Alameda County Democratic Party campaign official there yesterday, as well as an 82 year old African American artist and former CCAC professor. Jerry Freaking Brown hangs out at Mama Buzz sometimes. Our cafes have the potential to transcend class and generation lines if we don’t hamstring them.

    That application fee, by the way isn’t even the whole cost of getting that cabaret license. There are also all sorts of building code restrictions. This is why we should have two tiered or even multi-tiered permits. Safety for people in a 500 person night club, dancing in a dark room and drinking whiskey is one thing. Safety for people in a 50 person coffee shop at twilight, sitting and listening to an acoustic guitarist is something entirely different. The little guys simply should not be held to the same standard as the big guys.

    This is ridiculous. Left unchecked, it will lead to a situation where mom-and-pop is a thing of the past. Over-regulation means only people with a gang of wealthy investors will be able to open any sort of live music venue.

    Rebecca Kaplan, are you reading this? This seems like the kind of common sense, pro-fun agenda which might get some positive feedback from you. Am I wrong?

  4. Max Allstadt

    Looking back at the statute, I think there is only one word that we need to point out in order to make the case that it is horrendously out of date, and needs to be revamped.


    Those pesky unlicensed vaudvillians! They’re a carnsarned dagnabbed menace!

    But seriously folks, vaudeville was all but dead well before WWII. We need a new statute.

  5. Rebecca Kaplan

    Yes Max, you are right. Oakland needs to welcome and harness our arts community — and we need for our permit process to be rational.

    (This goes beyond artists too, there are many ways in which our permit process needs improvement, including this issue of “scale”).

    I would be happy to talk in more detail (including getting your input) about particular instances where we can revise our ordinances/statutes to make them more applicable to our changing circumstances, more user-friendly, and more likely to encourage a healthy and vibrant future for our city.

    We can build an Oakland renaissance. And yes, we will have to change some ordinances to do it. Strengthening the economy and community in a city has often historically included growth in the arts — and related growth of economic opportunity at all levels.

    Also, due to the fact that we urgently need to deploy more police to vital functions (e.g. dealing with serious crime), that is all the more reason to avoid wasting law enforcement resources where they are not needed.

  6. Max Allstadt

    Thanks, Rebecca.

    This scale issue really does amount to regressive taxation in a progressive city. I understand our need to collect revenue, but if we discourage mom-and-pop entrepreneurs in the process (or mom-and-mom, or pop-and-pop), we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

    I know you’ve spoken about this before. Particularly in the form of loosening up Conditional Use Permits. Glad to have you around.