Our View: No need for safe harbor

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The city of Steamboat Springs' new liquor ordinance has barely begun to produce results. Now is not the time to change it.

Last week, owners of businesses that sell alcohol asked the city to consider a "safe harbor" provision to the ordinance. Under such a provision, businesses that demonstrate they are adhering to strict policies regarding training of employees would be exempt from liquor license suspensions if an employee from the business sells alcohol to a minor.

Business owners think it is unfair to hold the business accountable for the actions of an employee if the business has taken the proper steps to educate the employee.

Although we understand the liquor business owners' logic, we disagree with creating such a safe harbor.

Most businesses have training programs, but proper training alone does not excuse the businesses from liability for their employees' actions.

If a worker does shoddy electrical work during the construction of a home, it is the contractor who will pay the price. If a reporter commits libel, it is the newspaper that will be held financially responsible. That accountability helps ensure that businesses not only train employees to do the right thing, but also follow up to make sure that they do.

It's important to remember how we got to this point. Less than a year ago, the Steamboat Springs Police Department conducted a compliance check of area businesses that sell alcohol - nine of 11 stores sold alcohol to a minor without bothering to check ID.

Justifiably alarmed by such results, the City Council implemented a new policy requiring an administrative hearing for businesses that sell alcohol to minors. At the hearings, businesses can have their liquor licenses suspended.

The ordinance had been approved but not used by the time the next compliance check was conducted last December. That time, six of 16 businesses failed. At the hearings that followed, several of those businesses were given liquor license suspensions for as many as five days.

The suspensions apparently sent the right message. During a May check, just one of 13 stores failed. In June, just one of six businesses failed.

Before the city started suspending liquor licenses, the compliance check failure rate was greater than 55 percent. After the suspensions began, that rate dropped to 10 percent. It's hard to believe there's not a correlation.

We can sympathize with responsible alcohol vendors who fear being financially punished for the mistake of an employee. But the City Council has the discretion to take such matters into consideration during the administrative hearings. In fact, the council did just that at recent hearings for Fiesta Jalisco and Jade Summit. Fiesta Jalisco, which took quick action to rectify its employee error, received a lighter suspension than Jade Summit, whose owner served alcohol to a minor.

Adding a safe harbor provision to the liquor ordinance would only reduce the

incentive for business owners to be vigilant in preventing the sale of alcohol to minors. Although still relatively new, the ordinance seems to be effective. There is no reason to change it now.

Comments

krisjeffb 7 years, 8 months ago

A safe harbor provision would not be necessary if the city council truly took the business' policies and preventive measures into account before deciding on a sentence. The city council has decided that every infraction will result in a license suspension--regardless. They've steered themselves into a corner by not leaving the option of a warning on the table. Business owners are irate at the inflexibility of the council's policy. A safe harbor provision would only protect those who truly go the extra mile, not those who are careless.

You use electrical contractors and newpaper reporters as parallels to bartenders who do not follow the rules. While a contractor may have to redo shoddy electical work and a newpaper may get a black eye for libel in the public's view, neither example automatically results in a complete shut down of operations for multiple days. The analogies are false. We do not close people down and punish many innocent co-workers for the misdeads of one lowly employee as a general rule of thumb. It is irresponsible for the newspaper to put forth conclusions based on misleading and incorrect information.

Financial penalties in the form of fines would ensure that all law breakers are treated equally. Suspending liquor licenses creates extreme financial losses for some and very modest financial consequences for others. This is unfair.

If safe harbor isn't the answer, then a complete revamping of the punitive consequences for non-compliance is in order. A warning to violators as a consequence for non-compliance needs to be available to city staff as a recommendation to the council. A range of fines needs to be in place as a consequence for infractions instead of relying solely on suspensions. Suspensions are headline grabbers, maybe even vote getters, but not the answer to our problem.

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