A proposal to impose a 24-hour alcohol ban on San Diego beaches hit a temporary snag on January 24 when the city's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee postponed action until early April. Although the fate of the proposal rests in the hands of the committee, and ultimately the city council, the most contentious skirmishes in this little war have been fought at the community level.
The 30 or so people who attended an Ocean Beach Town Council meeting on the night of January 16 engaged in a provocative debate on the proposed ban. Bill Bradshaw -- a representative from the Mission Beach Town Council, which voted to propose a ban on its beach in November -- spoke before the group at the Ocean Beach Recreational Center about the need for a strict new law. Activists opposed to a ban rebutted; they invoked the unique character of Ocean Beach and lectured about civil rights and personal freedoms. Meanwhile, some councilmembers opposed a ban for different reasons. They pointed out that their constituents had never asked them to look into the matter and complained that they were being ambushed by the issue.
Carol Smith, Ocean Beach Town Council president, told me during a break in the meeting, "This wasn't something that came up within our council. We started to wonder about it only after the Mission Beach Town Council proposal. What would happen to our community if Mission Beach and Pacific Beach passed laws banning alcohol and Ocean Beach was left as the only beach to allow drinking?" (The Pacific Beach Town Council will hold its forum on the alcohol ban on February 21.) In terms of lawmaking, San Diego's town councils function as advisory groups, but it was on the advice of the Mission Beach Town Council that the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, chaired by Councilwoman Toni Atkins, agreed to hear arguments regarding the proposal. Whether all the communities in the city asked for it or not, this meeting appeared to be a major step in a move to ban alcohol on all city beaches.
As it stands now, the beaches in San Diego County that allow drinking are Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, and Del Mar Beach. Drinking at the beaches is permitted only on the sand -- not on the sea walls, on the grass, or in the lots -- and is prohibited after 8:00 p.m. and before noon.
During his presentation, Bradshaw explained how the Mission Beach Town Council came to the decision to propose a ban -- and thus prompt the committee proceedings.
"I'm not here trying to sell anybody anything," Bradshaw began. "But about a year ago, Dick Mitchell [Mission Beach Town Council president] asked me to look at the alcohol issue and to see if it had improved since the time when they narrowed the window for drinking from 12 hours to 8 hours. The first thing we did was ask the police for their thoughts. We were astounded that over 75 percent of the arrests at Mission Beach were of people who had been drinking." Bradshaw also explained that the police had told him that it required a huge number of officers to keep the situation at the beach under control. "What's more, Los Angeles County and Orange County ban alcohol on all their beaches, and San Diego County prohibits alcohol at all of its inland parks." As a result, according to Bradshaw, Mission Beach attracts drinkers. "At our beaches," he said, "we have free parking. There is also good public transportation here, plenty of liquor stores, and plenty of rental apartments. So, come summer, we're a party town.
"It's certainly not a civil right to drink on the beach," Bradshaw concluded. "I'm tired of beer cans in my yard; I'm tired of people urinating on my wall; I'm tired of loud parties." So last November, influenced partly by such sentiments, the Mission Beach Town Council voted to propose an alcohol ban on its beach to the city council. "We went to the city council before Christmas," Bradshaw explained. "We asked them to take it up, and they agreed. We were specific; we spoke about the needs of our town and didn't threaten to ban drinking on all the other beaches."
The day of the meeting in Ocean Beach, Dick Mitchell told me that his council struggled with the decision to make the proposal. "It was not a unanimous vote at all," Mitchell said. "It was about two-thirds. We have a lot of new members who were not able to vote, so the outcome might have been different. It's a very divisive issue."
Mitchell claimed that he has to remain objective on the issue in order to run fair meetings. All the same, he made some good arguments against a ban. "There are the people who when they go to the beach like to have a beer in the afternoon. I'm one of them. There are people who like to go and have a glass of wine when they're watching the sunset. While many of them understand the problems we have when it comes to alcohol, they don't want to give up that part of their freedom. That's how it goes. The opposing viewpoint will come from these people and from the liquor-store people, who are absolutely concerned about it. One of the problems is that whatever we do, Mission Bay Park pretty much has to do it." And so, of course, will Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach. The city council will not approve an ordinance banning alcohol on just one beach, and that's why this issue has exposed some of the bitterness between the three beach towns. Mitchell said, "I know, for example, that on Friday nights we have trouble getting the police down here to do much because they're busy up on Garnet trying to enforce the law. If the police were able to enforce all the laws and the ordinances that we have in place now, I don't think we would be so concerned. Part of the problem is, if we try another law, are they gonna be able to enforce it? You got me."
So far, the most vocal opponents of a ban were those who spoke up at the Ocean Beach Town Council meeting. After Bradshaw finished making his case, several people in the audience peppered him with counterarguments.
"Before you made the proposal, did you do any research to find out how many people come from other towns just to drink on Mission Beach?"
"Did you determine whether the problem is any worse now than it was in the '70s?"
"Did you analyze any data to see what the impact of a ban might be?"
"You know, most people who drink on the beach are local citizens who drink responsibly."
"We don't have the reputation of Mission Beach here in Ocean Beach. We aren't the ones being touted as a place to party by MTV."
"Do you think that your subjective evaluations about what you don't like are grounds for establishing a law for the entire community? Do you think that's fair, sir? Do you think your personal opinion should ride over the majority of the people?"
Carol Smith called the meeting to order and demanded that Mr. Bradshaw not be personally attacked. Bradshaw saw that the temperature was rising. He waved good-bye and headed "home to dinner." Then Dan Morales, an Ocean Beach resident and union organizer, made his case against a ban. "We have deeper problems with drinking and alcohol in our society that a beach ban will not touch.... Warts and all, Ocean Beach has character; a ban will take some of that character away.... We should not be motivated by fear.
"How many of us know of any other place on the West Coast where you can drink?" Morales asked rhetorically. "My point is that if we do adopt a 24-hour ban on drinking on Ocean Beach, we'll be losing part of our uniqueness as Ocean Beach. True, it may not be pretty, and it may cost the town, but it will be Ocean Beach. Myself and others favor extending the hours of drinking on Ocean Beach. Why? That would be true to our community character. Going for the easiest, quickest solutions to our problems with alcohol is not gonna cut it. It's not gonna cut it on the West Coast, on the East Coast, inland, anywhere. If we have a problem with alcohol, other solutions should be found. A 24-hour ban is not the way to go."
Smith had invited Richard Ensign -- a community relations officer with the western division of the San Diego Police Department, which serves Ocean Beach -- and several patrol officers to speak at the meeting. Also observing that things were heating up, the officers refrained from taking a position regarding a ban. They were there simply to vow that they would enforce whatever laws were on the books and that they would do so with the welfare of the community in mind. Things began to cool off until Smith declared to the room that she had spoken with Councilman Byron Wear's office regarding the proposal. Wear, who had served on the Ocean Beach Town Council, now represents it on the city council.
"I just wanted to announce that Byron Wear will go on record at a press conference on Monday, January 22, saying that he favors a citywide alcohol ban," Smith said. "Apparently, he favors the inland-park laws going into effect on the beaches."
At this point, town councilmembers Tom Perrotti and George Gonzales got excited. "If the city council will hear this matter and Byron Wear will make a statement about it, why aren't any of them here tonight to hear what we have to say?" Gonzales asked. "We're forced to act locally on so many things, like our storm drains, but on this matter the city council wants to come in and act immediately."
"This feels really rushed to me," Perrotti said. "Why is this so fast and so much else so slow? Personal freedom is part of the character of Ocean Beach, and we have to take time to consider that. This timetable is too fast."
Clearly flustered, the town council closed the meeting, claiming they wanted to discuss a course of action among themselves.
The next day, both Smith and Gonzales explained to me what the town council decided to do. "We came up with six bullet points," Smith said. "First, we will call Byron and ask him to delay his press conference because we have not had the time to discuss this. We also will poll all of our members by mail and then try to make an educated vote on this as a council. Also, I will attend the meeting on the 24th and ask them for more time. We just feel rushed and don't want to make an uninformed decision on this."
Gonzales added, "It only seems fair to ask for more time. The Mission Beach Town Council had six months to prepare, and we just have six days. We would not have brought this issue up if it had not been for the Mission Beach Town Council. It was not a concern for us. We had not had any complaints from our citizens. We had already decided as a council that our focus would be on water issues. Also, I told the town council that if we were to poll those who showed up at the meeting and had an interest in this, a majority was against the ban. Personally, I feel that there are already laws on the books for the drunk and disorderly. I also feel that our beach police force works well with our community, and they do a good job of stopping trouble. We shouldn't try to constantly push an ordinance on the community. We have a sense of community here, and we police ourselves in the sense that our residents know their neighbors; they tell folks on the beach to mellow out. Then you have Mission Beach advertising its beach for parties. Their situation is not our situation. If we wanted to live by Mission Beach standards then we would live there. We have our own standards. But every time we cry out, they say, 'Oh, it's just those crazies in OB.' What I've learned is that the political machine can only attack one issue at a time. You have to prioritize. And we had chosen water quality as our issue, and now the alcohol ban is creeping in on us."
The day after the meeting, Dan Morales elaborated on his concerns regarding a ban. He believes that there are better ways to address the beach communities' problems with alcohol. "Early last year," Morales said, "Donna Frye, Al Strohlein, and others were calling for the city to look into the practices of the state ABC [department of Alcoholic Beverage Control] in relation to its issuance of liquor licenses. We fought a battle in OB beginning in July against the 7-Eleven getting a liquor license. And at that time a suggestion was put out again for a moratorium on new liquor licenses -- and that was in solidarity with community concerns about liquor licenses in Pacific Beach. That was a bitter fight, and we couldn't stop it, but it's not that we've given up. We feel that that is the way that we should treat the liquor problems in the beach areas, through the liquor licenses.
"Well, all of a sudden this idea of banning alcohol on the beach is getting pushed, which doesn't really address the issue of drinking in the beach areas; it just addresses one issue. It declares cheap drinking illegal. I'm not of the same class as those who are pushing this idea. This is being promoted by well-to-do property owners who really care more about the value of their property than the community at large. The effect will be -- for people like myself who live in small, one-bedroom apartments -- that we'll have no place for a beer party; it will keep us restricted. It has a class aspect to it; there's a class divide between property owners, renters, and people who just want to come to the beach to have a nice, big, broad expanse to play in."
Like Gonzales, Morales thinks the problem can also be addressed by enforcing existing laws. "The police at the meeting made it sound like they enforce all the laws," he said. "Well, it's well known in Ocean Beach that you can walk down the street with a beer and no one's going to bother you. The enforcement appears to be selective. I would think that broader enforcement is warranted." Morales concluded, "It's amazing that they're going after the consumers. This ban will keep people in the bars buying the expensive stuff or it will keep them in small apartments."
Despite these protests, Councilman Wear gave his press conference in Mission Beach as planned, with television crews and about 50 people in attendance. Wear also attended the committee hearing on January 24 even though he is not a member. He stood and urged the committee to move ahead with a ban and asked that an ordinance be drafted within 30 days. After Wear spoke, Carol Smith and Don Mullen, treasurer of the Pacific Beach Town Council, asked the committee to postpone any action until they could poll their communities. Councilwoman Atkins granted their requests. Opponents of a ban won a temporary reprieve when she put off any further action until April 4, saying that she wanted more community review of the issue and additional time to investigate alternatives, like doubling fines for alcohol offenses. But Atkins also swore that concerned parties would have plenty of opportunities in the future to make their cases.