More licenses suspended

Council hands down liquor punishments to businesses

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— The liquor licenses of two Steamboat Springs businesses were suspended Thursday as punishment for failing an alcohol compliance check in December. Neither businesses contested the suspensions.

The Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant's liquor license was suspended for five days, with four of the days held in abeyance. The bar and restaurant will serve the one-day suspension May 19. Gondola Liquors inside Market on the Mountain had its liquor license suspended for five days, with three days held in abeyance. Gondola Liquors will serve its two-day suspension June 17 and 18.

The days held in abeyance will be added to any future suspension the businesses would face if they failed another compliance check this year.

The suspensions were handed down by the Steamboat Springs City Council, which also is the city's liquor licensing authority, during a hearing Thursday.

City Clerk Julie Jordan told council members that she, police Capt. Joel Rae and city attorney Dan Foote thought the suspensions were "in the same ballpark" as the suspensions given to four other businesses that failed the Dec. 16 police compliance check.

In March, the council suspended Steamboat Discount Liquor's license for three days with seven held in abeyance. Dos Amigos' license also was suspended for two days with three held in abeyance. In April, the council suspended The Fireside Bar at Holiday Inn's license for two days with five days held in abeyance, and Cantina's license for one day with four days held in abeyance.

The owners of Cantina opted to serve the entire five-day suspension instead of having the days in abeyance hanging over their heads.

The variance in the number of days each business' liquor license was suspended depended on the preventative measures the business had taken to ensure compliance with liquor laws and the steps the business took after failing the compliance check, Jordan said.

Rio Grande general manger Doug Mouton said that since failing the police compliance check, his restaurant has hired a company that will send two adults who are 21 years old or older into the restaurant each month to purchase drinks. If the server or bartender does not ask the customers for ID, the server or bartender will be given a red flag. If a server or bartender receives two red flags in a year, he or she will terminated, Mouton said.

"We recognize we have a big problem with underage drinking in our community," Mouton said. "Before this incident, we had taken certain measures to ensure that we were checking IDs. We feel that since the incident, we've doubled our efforts to reinforce those."

Council member Steve Ivan--cie said he appreciated Mouton's initiatives.

"I'm very impressed with the implementation of the BARS program. It serves an example to the other establishments in this city as to what they should initiate. I condone you for that," he said.

Kay and Bill Stuart, who own Gondola Liquors, told City Council members that they took some extreme measures after they failed the compliance check. Those measures already have hurt their business, they said.

"After the violation, we immediately changed our policies. For five weeks after (the compliance check failure), no one was allowed to approve a sale of alcohol unless it was one of us or a manager," Kay Stuart said. "It created a negative environment. I was attacked by our customers on a regular basis." Kay Stuart said Gondola Liquors employees now ID anyone who looks younger than 40. The policy has upset skiers heading home from the mountain and locals who didn't have their IDs with them.

"Approximately 30 percent of our customers, both locals and tourists, are in our store without an ID. They are walking from the ski mountain, their condos or riding their bikes home from work. On quite a few occasions during this five-week period, I was confronted by an irate customer the next morning who had been in our store the previous night and had been unable to buy a bottle of wine because of our new policy," she said.

"Our local customers are now annoyed, as they expected us to back off after the end of the winter season. We are unable to accommodate our loyal, local customers because the risk is too high," Kay Stuart said about the city's new liquor ordinance.

Under the new ordinance, the City Council can fine businesses or suspend their liquor licenses for violations of liquor laws or compliance check failures.

The ordinance was passed after a September alcohol compliance check during which nine of 11 businesses sold alcohol to an underage person who was cooperating with police.

While City Council members said they recognize the hardships businesses face after failing a compliance check, they were adamant about sending the message that serving alcohol to a minor is unacceptable.

"The bottom line is that this has been a painful process for all of us. What we're doing, though, is sending a tough message to our businesses, our young people and the community," Ivancie said. "Sooner rather than later we're going to get the message out."

City Council member Towny Anderson encouraged the council to look at creating a safe harbor for businesses that took preventative measures before the compliance check and for those that improved policies afterward.

"My concern is that we're penalizing the business, when time and time again, I have been told that our young people aren't drinking in the bars. They're drinking elsewhere," Anderson said.

Anderson suggested the council look at placing more responsibility on the server or bartender who sells the beverage rather than the business owner.

Rae told Anderson that the City Council is in charge of punishing the business and that the District Attorney's Office and police department are responsible for punishing the server or bartender who made the sale.

City Council President Ken Brenner told Anderson he didn't think it was the council's responsibility to offer a safe harbor.

"The fact is, it's state law. There's an inherent responsibility that comes with owning a business that serves alcohol," he said. "We have a problem where we're not getting a lot of compliance. That is not the status quo. We can do better."

-- To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234 or e-mail adelacruz@steamboatpilot.com

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