Delaney's backbone MIA on bar closing times
Steve Schell
November/December 1999

Just when you thought you could separate level-headed thinking from political posturing, along comes City Commissioner Bruce Delaney to muddy the distinction. Delaney joins County Commissioner Chuck Clemmons in "flipping" on a popular issue (as opposed to "flip-flopping"-Delaney himself noted the difference) apparently, as many see it, to further their political ambitions. With Clemmons, it was the gas tax, with Delaney it's an ordinance governing closing times for bars and clubs.

Most people thought this issue had been dealt with and a reasonable compromise reached. After months of discussion, public comment, ad-hoc committee meetings, and the requisite misinformation campaigning, the commission voted 3-2 to have the City Attorney draft an ordinance requiring clubs to close at 4:00 am. Not that this ordinance is the answer to the original problems of noise, trash, and property damage in the downtown areas. The ordinance was presented to the commission and passed on first reading. Second reading was scheduled for the November 8, 1999 meeting. Most people were planning other things that night.

So imagine their surprise to read in the Gainesville Sun that same morning that Delaney was prepared to change his vote on the ordinance. Delaney gave as his reason, "all the people that I've known for years and I've been involved with politically for years who have come to me and said they really think the bars ought to close at 2 am." To Delaney, a 4 am closing time suddenly seemed unreasonable. He had previously stated that he was not inclined to support such an ordinance, saying it was "flawed...because the only thing it deals with is closing times," at a commission meeting earlier this summer. Several people who spoke during the citizen comment portion stated that they had come to the meeting because of what they read in the Sun. Michael Podolsky told the commission that "I think there's a sense of betrayal on the part of the students that got involved in this issue."

During the initial comments by commissioners prior to any motions, Hanrahan appeared ready to join Delaney in the flip but didn't commit, instead preferring to hear comment and discussion before reaching a decision. Delaney, on the other hand, displayed poor judgement by stating his intention to move to draft a new ordinance establishing a 2:00 closing time regardless of any comments. This stance only furthers the notion that many citizens have that their opinion doesn't matter because commissioners already know how they will vote before coming to the table.

But those who would have the rest of us home and asleep by 10:00 every night had returned to literally plead with the commission to vote down the 4 am compromise ordinance. The ubiquitous Debbie Martinez, who operates Ernestos Restaurant and is mainstream media's point of contact for this whole issue, was there again, this time saying that she hadn't planned to come (???), but that Rep. Bob Casey had asked her to read a letter from someone in Columbia County. The letter, signed by a Gloria Spivey, spoke of "our children" from Columbia County, driving the 45 minutes up I-75 "strung out on rave drugs" and implored the commission to close clubs at 2:00. Not to be outdone by out-of-towners, John Paul Jones read a statement from the ever-crusading Rep. Cliff Stearns of Ocala, who stated that there was "little justification for clubs to stay open past 2:00."

It seems that those who want to see a 2:00am (or even earlier) closing fall into one or the other (or both) of two categories. The first is comprised of bible-toting, scripture quoting, self-professed Christians who believe it to be their duty, and by extension, the duty of city government, to force people to adhere to rules and regulations that ultimately have the effect of dictating when, where, and how people can enjoy themselves. Tim Rockwell told commissioners that he used to think that it didn't matter whether he voted, but had recently registered to vote because he is "tired of having my rights trampled on in the name of God."

The other category is made up of those parents who, at some point, lost control of their children's lives. These parents (and sometimes their friends) frequently approach the commission literally in tears, and relate their stories of how their 14-year old was sucked into the "rave scene" and is now a recovering heroin addict, or some similar occurrence. They seem to believe that whatever happened to their child is directly the fault of one or more clubs. Many describe the clubs (downtown in particular) as being havens for drug use and underage drinking and claim that underage females are routinely allowed entry without identification and free of charge in order that they may be taken advantage of. The tearful Nora Gibbons said at the end of her comment to commissioners, "I won't even go into the sex rings that are operating out of these clubs."

So why did Delaney have a sudden change of heart? When asked if more information had been provided to the commission that could have caused members to rethink their original stance, the only response was from Commissioner Pegeen Hanrahan. She mentioned that she had requested club owners to show her what steps they were taking in the interim to deal with the issues, but that the only response she received was from University Club. Commissioner John Barrow, during the commission comment period, said that if there had been any new information, "I sure haven't seen it." Delaney had no response on the question of new information. He had mentioned at previous meetings the huge amount of misinformation floating around (from sources including the Gainesville Sun and Interim Chief of Police Daryl Johnston's committee) and appeared to be dismayed at being misled. He agreed to accept all of the committee's recommendations (see Iguana, October 1999) except for the 2:00 closing time, reasoning that the adoption of some or even all of those policies would more appropriately deal with the problem. In previous discussions, he seemed to carefully weigh the alternatives before reaching a decision, commenting that "I think [4am] is a fine idea. I don't like the idea of pushing everyone out of the bar at 2:00." Commission watchdog Vincent Mallet put it this way: "We're sorry it happened as a result of political influence. We wish it had been the result of personal conviction."

During the commissioners' final discussions on the matter, Hanrahan asked Delaney when he had first spoken to the Sun about his intentions. Delaney replied that Sun staffer Ray Washington had contacted him the day before to ask if he had indeed decided to switch his vote. Delaney claimed that he had spoken to Rod Smith and several others about this decision during the two weeks leading up to the meeting. Word apparently got around because Tom Miller mentioned the possibility during comments to those attending the Hempfest on the Saturday before the commission meeting. Hanrahan must have been thinking what many of the rest of us were: The Sun knew well in advance that Delaney was planning to flip, but sat on the story until the last minute. Why? Perhaps to prevent the opportunity for large numbers of people to organize and attend the meeting. Would it have made a difference?

Hanrahan also related an amusing personal story. She had gone out recently and was at Durty Nelly's at closing time (2:00). All patrons were ushered out of the club, and coincidentally, some type of ruckus had begun in the middle of University Avenue as she walked outside. "Within maybe 30 seconds," she said, GPD was on the scene and quickly had the situation under control. One of the officers saw Hanrahan on the sidewalk and called out, "you have to change your vote!" If these types of things are happening at 2:00, how will the situation change by forcing later-closing establishments to also close at 2:00, increasing the number of people forced onto the streets at once?

As it now stands, clubs must close at 4:00. Delaney voted for the ordinance because had it failed, we would still have no mandated closing time at all. Immediately after the ordinance passed, he moved to have a new ordinance drafted establishing a 2:00 closing time. With the votes of Commissioners Paula DeLaney and Ed Jennings, the motion passed. So we will again see two readings, and two periods of public comment, on the newest ordinance. If it passes, clubs will have to begin closing at 2:00 before the end of the year. These ordinances do not affect restaurants whose sales of alcohol do not constitute at least 51% of their business. It's conceivable that some smaller venues could install kitchens and charge a cover charge that would be good for a free sandwich or burger or whatever. It might bring them up to a 51% level of food service and thereby allow them to remain open all night. It might be cool to have a few such places where people could go after 2:00 and get something to eat and listen to some cool local music. Clubs like Florida Theater, Simons, and University Club, however, don't stand a chance. They'll have to hope that people begin to go out earlier, and this could create a whole new set of problems downtown as clubbers begin to roll in before the dining public begins to roll out. And things like the five-band Halloween extravaganza at Common Grounds last week will be no more. How can the last band take the stage at 1:00 if the club has to close by 2:00?

Delaney has his work cut out for him. His actions may well backfire if enough pissed-off people decide to get out and vote. And shudder to think of the alternative.

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