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Initially hailed, city dance law doesn't mean much these days
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle officials boasted four years ago they had found a way to protect youth from sexual predators, alcohol and drugs at dance parties.
The All-Ages Dance Ordinance would require anyone who holds a dance admitting kids younger than 18 to apply for a city permit, undergo a criminal background check and hire a certain number of security guards.
"Let's dance!" Mayor Greg Nickels proclaimed, channeling David Bowie after the City Council approved the law, adding it "ensures that there are adequate safety provisions in place."
Police report no major problems with all-ages events since then, but the law that officials said would protect teenagers is now irrelevant — largely ignored and rarely enforced.
Over the past two years, only one event promoter has received a permit and undergone the background check the law requires. Only eight people have applied for and received permits in the law's history. The all-ages law also doesn't apply to raves, which attract some of the largest crowds of teenagers.
No one has suggested that the recent killings on Capitol Hill were connected to the rave that the victims and the killer attended the night before. But because two of Kyle Huff's six victims were 14 and 15 years old, and because the nighttime electronic-music events can attract hundreds of teenagers and drugs such as Ecstasy, many are wondering how the city protects teen nightlife.
Laws of the dance
In 1985, the City Council approves the Teen Dance Ordinance after revelations of sexual abuse and drug trafficking at a dance venue called The Monastery.
In 2002, the council repeals the Teen Dance Ordinance, which was considered too restrictive. The All-Ages Dance Ordinance replaces it. The new law requires criminal background checks for organizers of dances, but not concerts and raves.
Only eight people have applied for and received a permit under the All-Ages Dance Ordinance, and just one holds a permit now.
The law that many assumed was regulating teen dances has not been applied to a single party this year.
Councilman Richard Conlin said the important thing to focus on is that there haven't been any complaints from the police or citizens. Conlin, who co-sponsored the law, said he assumes if teen party promoters don't have a permit, "they're either operating in a place that they feel they don't need a permit, or they have, for whatever reason, not applied for one and there haven't been any problems."
Mark Johnson, from Bremerton, is Seattle's only licensed event organizer, and says there are all-ages dance events every weekend that aren't being regulated.
"The fact that other people seem to get away with doing these events without having the right permits is disappointing to me," said Johnson.
The law has proved confusing.
Johnson thought he needed a permit for the raves he is planning this year, and wasn't told otherwise. Another rave organizer said the city told him he didn't need the annual permit even when he tried to apply. And the city-funded Vera Project, which holds all-ages dances, but not raves, has never applied for a permit.
To be sure, just because party promoters are not getting the permits does not mean the events are unsafe. All-ages dances, like any special event, still require fire-safety permits and liquor licenses. Good citizenship and smart business practices mean many organizers hire private security and emergency medical technicians.
Neither the police nor the Fire Department monitors whether all-ages dances have permits. The licensing department said it only goes after unlicensed organizers based on complaints — and did so only once, in 2003.
Protecting kids from criminals was the original intent of the all-ages law. In 1985, the city passed the Teen Dance Ordinance after revelations of sexual abuse and drug trafficking at a dance venue called The Monastery.
Critics complained the Teen Dance Ordinance smothered the city's music scene like a big wet blanket. After years of debate, a veto by Mayor Paul Schell and lobbying by the music industry, that law was replaced by the All-Ages Dance Ordinance in 2002.
Almost immediately, the subject of raves came up. A Music and Youth Commission spent several meetings debating whether raves — which feature disc jockeys and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people dancing — fell under the law: Are they "dances," which are covered, or "concerts," which are not?
Concerts, said the law's co-sponsor and council President Nick Licata, would have been impractical to monitor because there are so many.
Regina LaBelle, the mayor's legal counsel, said the commission determined that raves were concerts, not dances. That's not reflected in the commission's first report, which said the group "has not been able to come to a consensus regarding what a rave is ... "
Although the all-ages law required the commission to submit two more annual reports, it stopped meeting after that first one in 2004.
Travis Webb, a rave promoter in Seattle, said, "It's been a big, confusing mess."
Fewer crowds at raves
Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said he is concerned about the combination of Ecstasy use and teenagers at raves, but less than he used to be. The department paid more attention and made several arrests in 2001, when the events drew as many as 10,000 people.
They are not as "high on the radar," he said, because they now draw only a couple hundred.
Webb said the rave scene has become much more professional since 2001, even though underground parties still go on. He signs contracts with venue owners, hires a large number of security guards and EMTs, obtains insurance and pays business taxes. While police have routinely checked on his events, he said he has never been shut down.
Webb said he would welcome help from the city and law enforcement to reduce drug use. He used to hire off-duty police officers, but the Police Department banned it.
A University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute survey found that in 2003, 17 percent of people at local raves had done Ecstasy in the 12 hours prior to going to a rave.
"That's probably more than the general population but less than what people would expect," Caleb Banta-Green said, the UW researcher who conducted the study.
The law is perplexing to organizers of all events, not just raves.
The Vera Project, a city-funded, much-lauded teen-music venue, holds all-ages dances, but organizers do not think a permit is necessary.
"We are not an all-ages dance club. We are a skills-building youth music and arts program that also does concerts," said Kate Becker, the project's capital campaign chair.
Seattle events producer yvette Soler holds parties that combine performing arts, spirituality, music and dancing at the old Naval Reserve Armory at South Lake Union Park and the Pacific Science Center. She encourages whole families to come to her all-ages events — and she even sets up a children's area.
With all the permits she has applied for at the Fire Department and the parks department, she said no one has ever asked her whether she had an all-ages permit.
"I don't see a problem" with undergoing a criminal background check for a permit, Soler said.
Webb hopes the electronic-music community can work with the city to come up with a clear set of rules that everyone understands.
He would be happy to comply and alert city officials whenever he has an event. It's not like they don't already know. Every time he throws a rave, he said, he gets a business-tax form in the mail.
Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company