Footage of the ABO Hearing on St. Roch Tavern says the city still has a ways to go if it wants people to believe it hasn't declared war on live music.

Photo of St. Roch Tavern

The video of The St. Roch Tavern's Alcohol Beverage Control Board hearing is online, and for the most part, it reflects shamefully on New Orleans. City attorney Nolan Lambert was deliberately obtuse on a number of points as he treated owner Ronald Waguespack far more roughly than necessary, arbitrarily declaring him a "hostile witness" early on when Waguespack was simply careful to answer within the limits of what he knew. Still, a number of important thoughts come out of the hearing that are instructive to all parties as the city moves forward during a time that is being thought of - rightly or wrongly - as a period of war on culture.

I've said before that I don't see a war on culture. I think what we're seeing is what happens when the laissez-faire style of New Orleans' musical culture encounters a competent, business-like city government, but Lambert's aggressive, confrontational prosecution of Waguespack certainly reinforced the beliefs of those who believe the city is now anti-music. Though he took exception to the possibility that Waguespack might be calling someone who complained about St. Roch Tavern's noise a liar, Lambert asked Waguespack:

You're telling me right now, under oath - I want you to think about this - that John (St. Roch Tavern's manager) put up the notice (of the bar's phone number) in the window a year and a half ago after the consent agreement? It couldn't have happened more recently? Within the last two or three weeks? You know for sure that it's been in the window the entire time? Without fail?

Lambert was trying to establish that St. Roch Tavern was not acting in accordance with its consent agreement, which Waguespack entered into on July 19, 2011 in response to previous complaints that ended up with Waguespack before the ABO Board. If I infer correctly, he put in evidence photos that did not show the bar's windows in their entirety, with the place where Waguespack says he posted the number in question outside the frame of the shot.

Lambert seemed equally incredulous that Waguespack owns or has a piece of the ownership in 35 bars, and that he trusts the venue's day-to-day management to a bar manager, whose job it is to oversee bartenders and staff. When Lambert entered into evidence a series of complaining texts from a neighbor to bartender Martha Wood, he interpreted what sounded like apologetic efforts on her part to deal with the complaints as hostile, and seemed to overlook that the bartender was interested enough in dealing with complaints to give the neighbors her cell phone number.

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The entire discussion of Facebook and its role should embarrass city government. Chairman Rodney A. Seydel Jr. admitted, "I know nothing about Facebook," and Lambert seems unable to understand an Events page and the notion that staff and performers could or would post events or information on their own. He read posts in a tone deaf way, taking every post at its most malevolent possible meaning.

If people want to believe the fix was in, Seydel gave them reason to think that when he allowed Lambert to present a photo of threatening graffiti on a neighbor's house, but he didn't have to provide a date for the photo or even enter it into evidence at that point. Throughout, his management of the hearing allowed Lambert's hostile treatment of Waguespack, and he allowed the hearing to proceed with a packet of evidence that the defense only received two days before the hearing. It wasn't entirely numbered, based on moments when the hearing bogged down to sort out photos and figure out which ones Lambert was asking about.

One moment in the testimony raised a question bars and the city are going to have to think through: the difference between loitering and smoking. Bars that don't allow smoking inside force smokers to go outside for a cigarette. Is that loitering? If so, what are the other options? Is it better that bars abandon the smoke-free policy for the good of the neighborhood? How do we sort this out? If we don't, neighborhood noise is going to be an ongoing problem as more and more bars go smoke-free. 

The entire hearing made me wonder about what the relationship should be between the city and its businesses. Rather than trying to get a clear understanding of the situation at the St. Roch Tavern and figure out how genuinely it had addressed its consent agreement, the city attorney approached the hearing from an extremely prosecutorial stance, not simply in his task but his tone and approach, often doing his best to create no-win questions for Waguespack. If the city treats businesses - certainly culture-oriented businesses - as the enemy, they can't be surprised by pushback, hostility and suspicion.  

That said, one thing the hearing made very clear was that the issue was the degree to which Waguespack had honored the consent agreement. That was what earned him an ABO board hearing, and that was the point of Lambert's hostile questioning. The issue was never about the net value of St. Roch Tavern to the neighborhood, nor was it about live music. It was about doors being open or closed. It was about loitering. It was about noise down the street, and while Lambert's evidence isn't entirely convincing, it doesn't look like Waguespack did all that he could to make sure he upheld his end of the consent agreement. By the end of the hearing, it sounded like he largely continued to treat St. Roch Tavern like simply one more of his bars, and didn't respond with any hurry or additional diligence to its specific, unique challenges. The picture that emerged from his testimony - under direct and cross - is of a guy who asked his manager to do things, then largely left it there. He may have done what was reasonable, but after signing a consent agreement, more than reasonable was necessary. Under these circumstances, he gave power to the few and the complaining, despite the larger, vaguer interests of the community at large. Waguespack can contend that he only signed the agreement under duress, but he signed it nonetheless. 

One takeaway from the St. Roch hearing is that bar owners and venues can't play casual with regulations. City Hall these days requires everybody to dot every "i" and cross every "t," and that's not the worst thing in the world. We hate when the rules don't apply equally, and it's not better when the rules apply unequally in our favor. It's still unfair. Still, we're not used to City Hall being competent, much less vigilant, so this phase of hyper-vigilance is shocking. 

Another is that as supporters of live music in New Orleans, we need to focus on the issues at hand. We can talk about abstract rights and wrongs, and point out bitter ironies, hypocrisies, and logical fallacies, but we're talking apples to the city's oranges when we do. That's not what ABO boards and zoning boards are considering, nor should they be. We don't want unelected people venturing into larger, complicated questions of social positives and negatives, particularly where the arts are concerned because historically, the arts tend to lose those to impulses that have more immediate, tangible, economic positives. We need to make these election issues to force change at the top.

We also have to be more intelligent regarding our use of social media and particularly Facebook. It's a crucial organizing tool, but bartender Martha Wood's posts targeting and demonizing neighbors clearly set off the board. Because of those posts, part of the new consent agreement is that there is to be "no disparaging of the witnesses in this matter on any electronic medium associated with St. Roch Tavern or any of its employees," attorney Dan McNamara said. Better focus on the relevant issues will lead to better, more effective discourse in all forums, Facebook and Twitter included.

Music and culture is an essential part of New Orleans' economic future, and I think City Hall sees that. All efforts to sell the city as a tourist destination rely on music as a big part of the draw, and culture helps create the fabric of life that attract people to New Orleans to work at the medical center that's under construction. We are seeing the slow imposition of a closing times and end times for bands as they're written into consent agreements, but that's not the same thing as stamping out live music. 

Still, if the city wants to put to rest the meme that it has declared war on live music, it can adopt a less confrontational stance to the most reliable industry the city has had for more than a century. The bar owners aren't perps. For the most part, they're people trying to make a go of financially marginal businesses that give the city's natural resource a place to play.