Saturday, January 7, 2006
The Steamboat Springs City Council will have to make some hard decisions when it deals with a group of businesses accused of violating liquor laws.
The immediate issue is simple: In December, police sent two men, ages 19 and 20, into 18 restaurants, bars and liquor stores, where they tried to buy beer. Police say they were able to purchase alcohol in six places.
The council, as a liquor licensing authority, must decide what administrative sanctions to deliver under stricter guidelines approved in October. Possibilities include fines and suspending business licenses for as many as 15 days.
The real issue the council and the community are trying to address, however, is complicated.
December's compliance check was the fourth since November 2004. At least two businesses have failed during each, and the issue achieved critical mass in September 2005, when nine of 11 failed.
That inarguably bad performance led to community soul searching, forums about underage drinking and strengthened guidelines the council must decide how to wield.
There was an expectation among law enforcement officers and some in city administration that the community discussion and threat of the new sanctions would result in 100 percent compliance. That didn't happen, of course, and though the results were better than September's check, they were worse than a January 2005 check, when only three of 12 businesses failed.
The most recent check raises some interesting questions for the council. Should it focus on the improvement from September to December, assume it's a trend and go as easy as the new rules allow? Or should it consider December's check an indication that the threat of license suspensions alone is not making an impression, and make examples of some businesses?
Law officers argue that expecting 100 percent compliance is reasonable. All anybody has to do is read the date on an identification card.
"It's not rocket science," police Capt. Joel Rae said.
Business owners argue that they want to stay right with the law but are at the mercy of clerks and servers who, despite training, possible criminal citations and the threat of firing, don't always check.
They note, and rightly so, that to really battle underage drinking, the community, especially parents, has to become more effective in getting youngsters to obey the law.
It's hard to know what tack would be the most broadly just and effective for the council to take.
It seems clear, though, that whatever approach it takes will set the tone for future compliance checks.