The Oregon Liquor Control Commission has all the outward appearance of hip, contemporary culture. You can subscribe to the agency's Twitter feed (Here comes an arbitrary fine, Tweet!) or its Blogspot blog where you can learn that 77 percent of Portland area businesses didn't sell to minors, or that 82 percent of Central Oregon merchants passed their client check. But don't let the web wrangling fool you, this is an agency firmly planted in the early 20th Century post-Prohibition era. Nowhere is the agency's Victorian era attitude about alcohol consumption and sales, and its even more troubling strong-arm approach to enforcing that idea, more prevalent than in Central Oregon where the agency has been handing out fines and sanctions like Tequila shots in Cabo.
In the past few months the agency has effectively pulled the plug on the area's burgeoning beer festival, banned children from a popular local restaurant, and yanked the license of one downtown's most popular bars when the owner estimated it would cost more to fight a ticket than take a suspension.
There are many more examples. And bars and restaurants aren't the only ones crying foul. City, county and toursim officials all weighed in recently with strong words for what they say is the OLCC's arbitrary and unfair application of the state's liquor laws during an ongoing crackdown ostensibly aimed at reducing DUI incidents in Deschutes County. But most of the complaints go right back to the regional manager, Jason Evers, who licensees say has lost their trust. A former inspector for the agency, Evers was elevated to his current post that includes oversight of liquor licensees in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson County even as the agency was forced to backtrack on his reports in several high-profile local enforcements. The agency dropped fines against both JC's Bar and Grill and Corey's Bar Grill after video evidence contravened Evers' written reports, but only after lengthy and costly appeals by the bars. Local attorney Bill Buchanan who represented both businesses told The Bulletin recently that bars, "used to install security cameras to protect themselves from criminals. Now they do it to protect themselves from OLCC."
That's not an acceptable situation in a place where tourism is a cornerstone of our local economy with restaurants, bars and festivals some of the primary draws for visitors.
But what's even more unacceptable is the response that OLCC has offered to the litany of complaints. At a recent town hall, OLCC staff point-blank denied that it has a PR problem in Central Oregon even as officials from the city of Bend and Bend's official tourism agency hand delivered formal complaints. Representatives from Deschutes County and Bend Downtown Business Association seconded those concerns in person at the meeting. (And if you can think of the last time that city, county, and downtown officials, not to mention businesses, agreed on anything, feel free to let us know.) Since then, OLCC has said privately that it will be looking into the situation in Central Oregon.
But after years of complaints, reported harassment and bias, this agency needs more than a review, it needs fundamental restructuring and oversight in the region.
In bar parlance, we're cutting you off, OLCC.
In the meantime here's the Boot, straight up.