Good Cop, Bad Cop: OLCC gets a slap from DOJ | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Good Cop, Bad Cop: OLCC gets a slap from DOJ

After years of mounting complaints into the practices of its local office and regional manager in Bend, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) released last week the findings of a Department of Justice investigation in the Bend OLCC office.

The 39-page report, which was accompanied by a three-page letter from OLCC Director Stephen Pharo stopped short of condemning the agency's conduct, but singled the regional manager, Jason Evers, who was not named in the report for criticism. Among other things the report said that customers, as OLCC refers to its regulatory charges, were intimidated by OLCC staff whom licensees viewed as "vindictive" and inconsistent when applying licensing standards.

While the report didn't find a pattern of misconduct, the investigator identified a number of relatively recent incidents that had occurred between OLCC staff and licensees. In some cases, disputes involved simple misunderstandings over rules, but in others the report said that there were "examples where decision-making at the regional level appeared abrupt and punitive in nature or over-zealous."

While stopping short of calling for wholesale staffing or administrative changes, the report appears to substantiate many of the complaints that Bend business owners have lodged over the past 18 months or so about the OLCC office. At this point it's not clear what actions the agency will take to address the concerns, but Executive Director Pharo who came to Bend last week to discuss the report with local stakeholders recommended several changes in his letter which was addressed to officials at the city of Bend, Deschutes County and the state of Oregon.

Among other things, Pharo said that the agency would be reviewing and update its reporting process related to enforcement activities, including making regular news releases and analyzing data trends for the regions on a regular basis for consistency with agency protocol.

One of the biggest issues that local restaurant owners have had involves the Draconian restrictions around happy hours, including strict prohibitions on advertisements and a total ban on minors during happy hours. Pharo said the OLCC, a five-member citizen board appointed by the governor, has already moved to loosen the minor prohibition by allowing underage patrons when accompanied by adults in restaurant settings.

Pharo said he is also looking at how the agency handles contested enforcement actions, a process that is fraught with hurdles to appeals and built in double jeopardy for licensees who find themselves subject to penalties. While some of those issues would require legislative action, Pharo said that the OLCC is looking at the possibility of providing customers a direct line to the agency's Internal Audit Committee and the possibility of using third-party staff to review proposed enforcement actions.

While Bend stakeholders have welcomed the pledge to review and update OLCC's regulatory processes, several said that they thought the agency needed to commit to a staffing change in Bend.

"I'm hopeful and optimistic that the OLCC will seize the opportunity now before them to re-establish their credibility in Central Oregon. But in order to do that, they must assure us that the previous regional manager will not be re-assigned to Bend, and they must also commit to major reform to their antiquated policies and procedures. If they fail to do either of those things, we will continue to work with our elected officials to achieve the necessary changes," said Doug La Placa, executive director of Visit Bend and the author of the letter to the governor that spurred the DOJ review.

In the meantime, the agency has named an acting manager after temporarily removing Evers from the Bend office. Pharo said Evers is working on several special projects for OLCC in Portland while the agency completes its personnel review.

While he declined to say what actions the agency was considering or whether or not Evers might be back in Bend, Pharo confirmed that some of the actions attributed to Evers in the report, including mixing his private life with his role as a public official, did not conform to OLCC policy. Specifically the report detailed how at one point Evers attended an outdoor concert (presumably at the Old Mill) as a spectator and then followed up his observations with a series of new rules for the venue.

"If someone was in the position of initiating something while off duty we would consider that inappropriate," Pharo said, in a follow-up interview with the Source. "When you're off duty, you're off duty."

While the relationship between OLCC enforcement staff and licensees can sometimes be strained, Pharo said it's his agency's job to not only hold business accountable but also to help them succeed.

Bend stakeholders say the best way OLCC can do that in the short term is by finding a new person to lead the local office.

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