The city of Tampa has a public safety interest in cracking down on irresponsible nightclubs and bars. But the proposal the City Council will consider on Thursday is a shotgun approach that needlessly increases the cost and bureaucracy for law-abiding businesses. It also could create a pathway for bars to stay open around the clock. Council members should reject this approach and work with industry and community groups on a fairer, more direct way to target the real offenders.
The proposal aims to give the city more leverage in dealing with nightclubs, restaurants and bars by adding new provisions to their operating licenses. One ordinance would roll back closing times in the city from 3 a.m. to midnight. A second would allow these establishments to keep the 3 a.m. closing time by applying for a new "extended hours" permit. The intent is to make those selling alcohol more responsible for any drug use, other crimes or underage drinking on their property, and it stems from shootings in recent years at two Ybor City area clubs that left one man dead and six wounded. For most bars and restaurants, this is bureaucracy run amok.
However well-intentioned, the proposal applies across the board, regardless of whether a specific restaurant, club or bar is known to be a problem. The ordinance would not apply to those establishments where the City Council has already imposed specific operating hours, but it would apply to all others who want to keep the 3 a.m. closing time they have today.
The ordinance would create a new, annual permit application process — a waste of money and time for businesses and make-work for City Hall. While the idea is to bring irresponsible bars under control, the sanctions and appeals process provides enough wiggle room for the trouble spots to keep operating.
There are more effective ways the city can bring irresponsible businesses in line. Tampa could more aggressively prosecute the worst bars as public nuisances. It could narrow the crackdown to target the nightclubs and bars that are the problem, and those with bad track records could be forced to hire additional off-duty police officers for security.
This is a complex issue that involves public safety, property rights and business regulation. The ordinance could invite even later closing times; council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, a sponsor, said the new conditions could be a way for later extending closing hours beyond 3 a.m. She also intends to move Thursday to bump the Sunday opening hours to 7 a.m., in line with every other day of the week. This is policymaking on the fly.
The council should shelve this proposal and ask the staff to lead a thorough, inclusive discussion in the new year on smarter strategies for combatting the nuisance bars. The starting point should not make every establishment the enemy.