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Code Compliance and the Night Manager – How intertwined should they be?

Scott Plusquellec - Seattle, WA

One of the first questions that cities contemplating a Night Manager role must grapple with is in what department or office should the role be located?  This question often is resolved with the answer to a bigger question – will the role have a regulatory dimension or not?  Some cities have seen the role as mainly a code enforcer and place the position in the police department or other enforcement agency.  Others view the role primarily as an economic development resource or nighttime planning analyst.  Often this decision comes down to how a jurisdiction views its nighttime activities and economy.  Are they activities that are felt to be  a nuisance and should be controlled, or are they assets that need attention and care to grow and thrive?  And some may see it as a mixture of the two and thread the needle by using the role as a bridge between the nighttime community and enforcement.

Seattle – A Case Study

For many years throughout the 1980s and early ‘90’s, Seattle had a fraught relationship with its nightlife.  Crackdowns on bars and nightclubs were frequent and nightlife was viewed as a nuisance to be tamped down.  Seattle was even a “footloose” city (a reference to the 1984 movie starring Kevin Bacon about a town that doesn’t allow teen dancing), with a Teen Dance Ordinance that barred people under the age of 21 from congregating to dance.  However, fueled by the success of repealing the Ordinance in 2002, the nightlife industry began organizing and advocating for themselves, leading to subsequent administrations, more familiar with industry stakeholders and more accustomed to enjoying nightlife themselves, to begin to shift focus to supporting the industry and finding ways of working together to resolve issues.

In 2012  the city developed an eight-point plan for nightlife that included the formation of a Code Compliance Team (CCT) and a Joint Enforcement Team (JET) to oversee code compliance and educate nightlife stakeholders.  Both entities are interdepartmental organizations including Police, Fire, Construction and Inspections, City Attorney, Transportation, Finance and Administration, and Economic Development, as well as outside partners in the State Liquor Cannabis Board (LCB) and King County Public Health.  JET is the on-the-ground enforcement and education team, which routinely monitors activity on weekend nights to check on problematic venues or respond to issues surfaced through public complaints. CCT oversees issues  that arise during JET outings  or police reports that are too complex to be handled in the moment by JET and need a cross-departmental response, and works to modify or create policy as needed.

Enter the Night Manager

As a culmination of Seattle’s  years-long pivot away from an adversarial stance to a more cooperative relationship with the nightlife industry, the city in 2017 added the new role of Nightlife Business Advocate.  As the first person to assume the role, I was tasked with creating it from the ground up and that included addressing the sticky question of how involved in compliance the role should be.  The answer might have seemed easy given the title included the word “Advocate”.  And the role was placed in the Office of Film and Music, an economic development department (as opposed to the Code or Police department).  Ultimately,  it wasn’t that simple because at the heart of the matter was the question of trust.

While I’d had years of experience working in nightlife roles (actor, waiter, bartender) I was not particularly well-known amongst the nightlife stakeholders for whom I was to advocate.  A notoriously wary lot, suspicious of government intervention from the aforementioned years of crackdowns, the owners and managers were rightly suspicious of this new role.  In order for me to have any luck in being allowed into their circles and understand the issues they faced, it was vital that it not be seen as an enforcement tool.  How could operators open up to me about permitting and licensing and city disenfranchisement if they thought I could use that information against them?  I spent the first year meeting as many people in the industry as I could and the first words out of my mouth were always “I am not enforcement”.

At the same time, I had another group of stakeholders I needed to trust me as well.  In order to effectively advocate for nightlife stakeholders, I needed people within city government  to work with me and be open to changing certain internal structures to benefit our nighttime economy.  This meant they needed to trust me to value the importance of regulations and to understand the limits to flexibility in city ordinances. They had to see me as a partner and not solely on the side of the venues.

At the outset I was very rigid in keeping bright lines around my role. For example, I declined to go out with JET on their rounds to avoid being associated with enforcement officers.  I stressed the “advocate” aspect of the role in my meetings with venue owners and operators.  However, I slowly started finding ways to bridge the gap.  I did join the CCT, but to be a voice for the industry in any regulatory discussions and also to learn what issues the city was grappling with around nightlife.  I attended nightlife security meetings with our nightlife detectives, fire marshals and liquor enforcement officers to hear from venue security guards themselves what trends in violence, guns or drugs they were dealing with firsthand.  I put together safety trainings for venue owners where they met and got to know the officers providing the training. And the JET team came to see me as a valuable tool in working with owners to come into compliance.  Enforcement Staff would outline what violations they were seeing, and then hand them my business card as a resource to help them get the resolution they needed.

In the end, wherever a nighttime manager role is situated in government, it’s important that the role be designed to suit the needs of its city and nightlife. Perhaps compliance and reducing problems is the foremost concern. Perhaps it’s economic development and nurturing a municipal asset.  But most probably it is a measure of both and the role can be a connector between those worlds. Threading  that needle has worked in Seattle, as the role is viewed both outside and inside the city as a valuable resource for dispute resolution, resource management, economic development and community relations. ~Scott Plusquellec Seattle, WA

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