As a parent, public health advocate, community member and liquor license holder, I have an unusual vantage point from which to examine the city's liquor enforcement policy.
One of my restaurants, The Cantina, was cited for serving alcohol to a minor on Dec. 16. The many measures we take at the Cantina to prevent such a violation include requiring all alcohol servers to be TIPS certified; posting bouncers at front and back doors during special events to prevent access to minors; publishing our alcohol policies in an Employee Handbook that requires staff to ask patrons who appear younger than 35 for identification; mandatory internal alcohol server training sessions; a secret-shopper program for internal compliance checks; a video surveillance system; and formal incentives and disincentives for staff members related to their compliance records. Despite recognizing our efforts to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors by our staff members, the City Council suspended The Cantina's liquor license for five days in April.
Steamboat, like nearly every other community in America, struggles to find ways to protect our kids from the effects of alcohol. The City Council has decided to step up enforcement action against outlets who sell alcohol to minors. Increasing the frequency of compliance checks has resulted in an increased awareness on the part of operators. Undercover sting operations, which initially netted a steady stream of violations, have slowed infractions to a modest drip.
While this was an easy first step, it is a far cry from addressing the issue of teen alcohol consumption in any meaningful way. A 2003 National Academy of Sciences Report revealed that two-thirds of the teens who drink alcohol, obtain it from parents or other adults, not commercial outlets. While most Steamboat residents are now well aware of the potential liabilities for retail outlets who provide alcohol to minors, how much effort has been made to increase awareness regarding the penalties for adults who provide alcohol to their children or their children's friends?
What sort of enforcement action is the City Council taking to protect teens from their own parents or other adults who subscribe to the notion that alcohol consumption is merely a right of passage? While reducing the amount of alcohol available to minors from commercial outlets is important, it should not be the primary, and certainly not the only, weapon in our arsenal.
The new policy set forth by the City Council, acting as the city's liquor licensing authority, requires the suspension of a liquor license for any violation of alcohol laws by a liquor vendor -- an unfair and variable penalty. Had the City Council asked for input from stakeholders, they would have realized that suspending the liquor license of one restaurant for five days could result in a $15,000 loss in gross receipts, while the same penalty applied to another outlet would create a loss of less than a few hundred dollars. One could argue that a busy restaurant who serves one alcoholic beverage in a thousand to a minor has a 0.01 percent noncompliance rate, while a slow restaurant that serves one alcoholic beverage in ten to a minor has a 10 percent noncompliance rate. Why punish the outlet with the substantially better compliance rate so much more harshly?
I understand that the liquor license holder is ultimately responsible for the actions of employees. I agree with the frustrations of City Council members that they cannot do more to penalize front-line bartenders, servers and clerks for noncompliance, rather than solely focusing on owners who are trying to comply with liquor regulations.
City Councilman Towny Anderson said at a May 4 hearing, "The purpose of a liquor authority is to suspend or revoke the licenses of irresponsible business owners. I think we're very quickly going to get to the point where we're penalizing responsible business owners instead of supporting them."
Closing a business down for the actions of one employee is inherently unfair. What would happen if this policy was translated to public service organizations and we started suspending the entire police force for the misdeed of one beat cop?
While I personally lost a great deal of revenue during my suspension period, so did my employees who did nothing wrong. The city, the community, and the school district also lost out on sales tax revenue during the suspension period. I have reduced the amount of food and gift certificates I give to local charities to help offset the loss of revenue. There may actually be a provision in my business insurance policy that will protect me from the penalties I incurred from an illegal act perpetrated by an employee. Wouldn't it be ironic if, in the end, I am reimbursed for the loss by the insurance carrier, and the only ones who really suffered a financial penalty were those who did nothing wrong?
I believe that the decrease in the number of violations we've seen since the city has increased compliance efforts is a direct result of the undercover sting operations and not the punitive measures imposed by the City Council in response to the violations. While the council has stuck by its assertion that suspension of liquor licenses has been key to improving compliance, I argue that I had completed my overhaul of The Cantina's policies and procedures prior to the sentencing hearing. While 100 percent compliance is a noble goal, as long as human beings work the front lines in the service industry, mistakes will be made. Human beings are not perfect. We all make mistakes and even occasionally use poor judgment.
Can't we only demand that owners and managers are doing everything within their power to encourage compliance and harshly penalize those who are not making a substantial effort? Isn't there something inherently unfair about a policy that allows the City Council during the April 7 hearing to commend The Cantina for its efforts and suggest that The Cantina serve as a model for other liquor serving establishments in promoting compliance, and then turn around and suspend the liquor license for five days anyway in the next breath?
Instead of sending the message "we're inexperienced and/or insensitive to the realities of the service industry," let's find a policy that sends the message "we understand the difficulties of your business, let's work on this together, we're here to help."
Ladies and gentlemen of the Steamboat City Council, please put aside this draconian policy, ask stakeholders for input, and come up with a policy that unites the community under a common and worthy goal -- protecting our kids.