Last Call for 3 a.m. Closings

Mediating the city's liquor-license madness is enough to drive an alderman to drink

With so much hope for St. Louis' future riding on more convention business, perhaps it's fitting that the whole damn city is considered one huge convention zone -- at least that was the thinking when the idea of 3 a.m. bar closings was first floated.

Back when the Solomons in City Hall were trying to figure out which bars could stay open past the usual 1:30 a.m. limit, they reached a compromise that designated the whole city -- except for the Central West End bar-and-restaurant strip -- a convention zone. The owner of any bar could get a 3 a.m. license as long as he or she secured the agreement of a majority of property owners, business owners and registered voters within a 500-foot radius of the establishment. To qualify, the bar must also do at least $100,000 of business per year.

St. Louis has about 45 such licensees, concentrated at downtown hotels, Laclede's Landing and along Washington Avenue and sprinkled here and there, says city Excise Commissioner Robert Kraiberg. There is none in Soulard, but in the sparsely populated Kosciusko district east of Seventh Street, a few late licenses are in place.

That's more than enough places to get a late-night libation, according to Ald. Stephen Gregali (D-14th). Gregali isn't concerned with the livers of local citizens; he's just tired of being drawn into neighborhood brouhahas about extended-hours licenses. So he's introduced a bill that would flip the current approach by identifying certain small areas as convention zones eligible for the 3 a.m. option. Bars already with the license would be grandfathered in no matter where they are, he says. The goal is to avoid contentious disputes when a bar tries to obtain a 3 a.m. license.

"It creates a miniwar between the bar and the neighborhood association," Gregali says. "It's not worth dealing with. No bar in the middle of a neighborhood needs a 3 a.m. license. So the way to do it is to redefine the lines. When you redefine it, my ward will not be part of it."

Even when a bar fails to obtain a permit, an alderman's troubles aren't over. "When they keep reapplying, quite frankly, it's a pain in the butt. My phone rings off the wall. I got the bar calling me saying they want my help," Gregali says. "Other aldermen have the same problem. It's a hassle. Nine times out of 10, the bar won't get the license, but they'll wait and a year later they'll do it again."

Kraiberg says getting the majority of people living around a bar to sign a petition "has a controlling effect. If a place is surrounded by a lot of registered voters, they may not sign for something like that. That's why most of the 3 o'clock licenses you see are in nonresidential areas."

Gregali's bill is still in committee and has a ways to go, but as long as aldermen like Phyllis Young (D-7th) and Lewis Reed (D-6th) can exempt areas downtown, near Lafayette Square and just outside Soulard, most aldermen probably will go with the flow, agreeing with Gregali. "It creates a lot of headaches, a lot of tension," Gregali says of the bar spats. "People get to screaming and yelling at each other; it's ridiculous. I'm going to eliminate that problem."

Maybe that'll be good news to East Side publicans. Perhaps they can change that state slogan of Illinois from "Land of Lincoln" to "Where the binge continues."

POLICE CHAT ROOM BUSTED: Sometimes the most frightening thing about the city police wasn't seeing the cherry top switch on behind you as you drove home from a bar with a 3 a.m. license. No, it was the www.slpoa.org chat room. Oh Lordy, what some folks typed into that chat room. Most of it was anonymous, some of it was political, some of it was wacky and some of it was just plain ugly. Well, Officer Gary Wiegert, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, has put an end to all that.

"The chat room was a source of embarrassment to me," Wiegert says. "Sometimes it was like reading a bathroom wall. Everybody reads it, but I think it sheds a bad light on our organization. It's our name at the top of the Web site"

So that's it -- the chat room is closed until further notice. The Web site has been a popular place to visit; since Aug. 1, 1998, the site has received more than 104,000 hits. Chances are, many of those hits were from people who wanted to see police take off on some local politician or to vent their frustrations about the most recent charge of police brutality or an officer-involved shooting.

"What made it so attractive was the anonymous stuff. The trouble is that people loved the anonymous stuff," Wiegert says. "Even when a member would send something in and sign his name to it, then anonymous people would come in, and even though they wouldn't attack him by name, we knew who the attack was directed at."

In an attempt to ratchet down the sauciness or weirdness of the anonymous comments, the Web site had "monitors" who could delete entries that were too wild or scurrilous. But, as Wiegert found out, some monitors had their own agendas, and the purpose of a chat room is to get people to express themselves, even though sometimes that posed problems.

"We had open speech on that chat room," Wiegert says. "Some of those things were racist in nature, and I didn't like that. Anything that appeared at all that could offend somebody as regards to race, I had taken off. And anything that would attack a fellow member, I didn't like that, either -- I had that taken off. But, unfortunately, each monitor had his own idea of what was an attack and what wasn't."

After the monitoring was discontinued, Wiegert got other calls from workers questioning the wisdom of allowing some rude comment to appear on the Web site. "They'd call me all day about taking stuff off. I spent a lot of time having to decide what went in or not," says Wiegert. "People would call all the time and say, 'Why is this going on?' and 'This is offensive to me.'

"I didn't monitor it that much. I read the thing maybe once a week or so, because it's very time-consuming," Wiegert says. "The problem is, with the anonymous posting, it looks like police association supports these announcements postings, and we don't. It becomes he-said, she-said stuff. It makes you wonder, when you look at it, 'Is this true?' It's like, when it's in print, it becomes a fact."

As is often the case, the best parts get edited out. Cops see a lot.

"We see tons of people who are having affairs. We see who's going in whose door. We see who's parked on the riverfront with whom; we see all this stuff," Wiegert says. "But that doesn't mean we should be putting it on the Web site.

"At some point, I thought we would get to a higher plane on what people put on there in the form of discussion, but we found the lowest common denominator for what was put on there."

CHARLES JACO, OMNIPRESENT WAR CORRESPONDENT: The KMOX (1120 AM) afternoon newsmeister has been around. If you don't believe it, check his Web site, www.charlesjaco.com. He's also speaking at 7:45 a.m. June 15, at the general-membership breakfast of the Creve Coeur-Olivette Chamber of Commerce, at the Creve Coeur Country Club. To publicize the appearance by Jaco, described as "novelist, war correspondent, network news anchor, radio talk show host," a flier was faxed out, including the following paragraph:

"Jaco's career as a war correspondent began when he covered the overthrow of (Nicaraguan) dictator Anastasio Somoza-- 5 years later he was back in Nicaragua traveling with the Contra troops, living on iguanas and plantains while under constant attack. He has covered the famine and civil war in Ethiopia, the civil war in Angola, was stabbed in South Africa covering the apartheid system, was beaten by Manuel Noriega's riot police -- but retrieved Noriega's watch which he wears today, was shot down twice in El Salvador covering the civil war, was chased by armed drug traffickers in Bolivia, almost killed in Haiti by the Tontons Macoute and attacked by a mob in Jamaica. He covered the Branch Davidian siege in Waco and infiltrated the American Nazi Party in Chicago."

Apparently only space constraints prevented mention of Jaco's involvement with the French Resistance in World War II, his tagging along with Hannibal as he crossed the Swiss Alps during the second Punic War and his reports on the Peloponnesian War between those cerebral Athenians and pesky Spartans.

Tell D.J. Wilson what you think by e-mailing "Short Cuts" at shortcuts@riverfronttimes.com, faxing 314-615-6716 or calling 314-615-6711.

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