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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."

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