Jeff Jardine

City stops dancing around ordinance

You're sitting in a restaurant or a bar in Modesto.

There's a guitarist in the corner, doing a poor but heartfelt Eric Clapton impersonation.

"Layla ... ."

You start tapping your fingers on the table. Then, darn it, you just can't control yourself as he grinds into a blues lick. Your feet begin to move with the beat.

Stop it! Restrain yourself. Sit still. Remain absolutely motionless.

You see, according to the initial draft of a city entertainment ordinance, you're dancing. Worse, you're dancing in a place that doesn't have a dance permit issued by the city. And when that happens, you might as well be Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers or, heaven forbid, Michael Jackson in the eyes of the law.

Contained in the draft language: "Dance and dancing" means movement of the human body, accompanied by music or rhythm.

Defined that way, it wouldn't matter whether you're absolutely the world's worst dancer or have no sense of rhythm whatsoever. You're dancing, baby. And if a cop happens to see you, the officer could hold the club's manager responsible.

Fortunately, that draft is destined for the shredder, Modesto Councilman Will O'Bryant said, in favor of a much more defined version.

"That one's not going anywhere," he said.

Evidence of Modesto's growing pains is that it developed a downtown entertainment district, meaning places people can go to eat, drink and dance. But as the area prospered, crowd control became an issue. Last year's hyphy incident and some other flare-ups persuaded the city to revisit some of its ordinances, including dance permits.

The police took the first crack at it with an all-encompassing entertainment ordinance. Count O'Bryant among those who don't want the police driving policy.

"If the police draft it, it's like judge, jury and executioner all at once," he said.

To Police Chief Roy Wasden's credit, he said he wanted input from club owners when he unveiled the draft to O'Bryant last month. So representatives of two dance clubs and a restaurant are members of a 12-person advisory committee to help the city's Safety and Communities Committee create new, clearly defined rules.

"I want to make it perfectly clear, to the business owners and to the officers, what is expected," O'Bryant said.

But the committee has gone underground, holding no more public hearings until it presents a proposal to O'Bryant's committee in December.

An informal poll of people along 10th and J streets any Thursday, Friday or Saturday night will show the downtown clientele includes people from places such as Fresno, Stockton, San Jose, Tracy and the East Bay. Out-of-towners accounted for 20 of the 57 arrests downtown from May 1 through July 31, according to police, who say it cost the department nearly $500,000 to staff the area last year.

Last week, the city temporarily suspended the dance permit of Sin City Nights, a bar on 10th Street, for numerous violations and drawing complaints from other club owners.

Other clubs, including Bacchus and The Nines, have been cited for allowing dancing without a permit. The Nines' server Teri Wattles said staff members have had to tell customers to quit dancing for fear of getting another citation.

M eanwhile, last month, Bacchus manager Tiffany Amador Stewart said an officer cited her, telling her she would need to report to the jail to be booked and fingerprinted. Why? Because six women -- two of them county 911 dispatchers -- were seen dancing in the club.

"At first, I thought he was joking," Stewart said. "When I asked him what constitutes dancing, he told me that even nodding their heads (in sync with the music) was dancing. We don't even have a dance floor."

Stewart later talked to police Lt. Ron Cloward, who heads Modesto's downtown enforcement unit. He told her she should have been cited for an infraction, not a misdemeanor. No, he told her, she didn't have to report to the jail for processing.

Patty Amador, the restaurant's owner, said she understands both sides of the issue. Business owners want to run their establishments with as little police interference as possible. The police, meanwhile, are entrusted with keeping the peace downtown.

"I appreciate what they're trying to do," Amador said. "If people don't feel safe coming to the downtown, that hurts my business."

It also hurts a business when its patrons aren't free to snap their fingers, tap their feet and sway with the music when the beat so moves them.

But until they hammer out the new ordinance to everyone's satisfaction, stay still. Very still. Perfectly still. Resist that itch to twitch and the urge to surge.

Your favorite restaurant manager doesn't need the ticket.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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