Walking the line

Businesses seek balance in alcohol rule compliance


— Before mid-December 2005, Jeff and Kristi Brown, owners of the Cantina and Mambo Italiano restaurants in Steamboat Springs, made their employees follow 14 policies regarding serving alcohol to customers.

The Browns made sure their employees were TIPS certified. Training for Intervention Proc--edures is a program designed to teach servers, sellers and consumers of alcohol to prevent intoxication. Bouncers were placed at front and back doors to check identifications. Servers were told to ID all patrons who appeared 35 or younger. Identification guidebooks were available for servers unsure of an ID's validity.

It still wasn't enough.

On Dec. 16, Cantina failed a Steamboat Springs Police Dep--artment alcohol compliance check. One of their bartenders was cited for serving alcohol to a minor. He was fined $300 and was ordered to serve 30 hours of community service.

The Browns, on the other hand, had to appear before the Steam--boat Springs City Council, which is the city's liquor license authority. As punishment for the failed compliance check, Cantina's liquor license was suspended for one day with four days held in abeyance. The Browns opted to serve all five days at once.

The punishment was part of a city ordinance adopted in the fall aimed at curbing underage drinking. The ordinance came on the heels of a September compliance check in which nine of 11 Steamboat businesses sold alcohol to a minor who was cooperating with police.

Although the two most recent compliance checks show a steady increase in the number of businesses who ID young patrons, business owners such as the Browns continue to question the new ordinance and whether it's fair to punish owners more harshly than the employees who commit the crimes.

"We're at the mercy of our staff. It's unrealistic to think any business can ever be 100 percent compliant," Kristi Brown said.

The right punishment?

After failing the Dec. 16 compliance check, the Browns implemented 10 additional policies to make sure their employees don't serve to minors.

But all those steps and whatever other measures businesses may take won't ever be enough to guarantee compliance, they said.

"The City Council decided to attack this issue head-on," Kristi Brown said. "Maybe their hands were tied with what they could have done as the liquor authority. The only thing they could do was to come down harshly on the liquor license holders."

The Browns said they support the compliance checks because one business's failure can deter other businesses from making the same mistake.

"The stings raise awareness. It tells us that people are looking, people are checking. It keeps us on our toes," she said. "It brings our shortcoming to light."

Suspending liquor licenses, Brown argued, does little to effectively prevent future violations.

"Taking away our license was no more effective than giving us a warning or giving us a fine," Brown said.

City and police officials, however, seem satisfied with the new ordinance.

City Council President Ken Brenner said suspending the liquor licenses of the businesses that failed the December compliance check was necessary, as a punitive measure and to send a clear message that non-complicity is unacceptable. It's for that reason that the council didn't give out any warnings.

"We weren't convinced that a letter of warning would accomplish what we are trying to accomplish," he said.

The new system

Before November 2005, businesses that failed compliance checks were cited for providing alcohol to a minor, and the employee who made the sale and the owner of the cited business went through the judicial system.

After a string of low compliance rates and rising community concern that underage drinking was out of control, the City Council adopted an ordinance allowing it to punish business owners.

Beginning in March, businesses that failed the December compliance check appeared before the City Council to receive their punishment. Each business was given a suspension based on what steps it had taken to prevent selling alcohol to minors before the compliance check failure and what steps it took to rectify the problem after the failure, City Clerk Julie Jordan said.

Jordan said some of the businesses were given lighter suspensions because they had strong preventative measures in place and took additional steps after the failure to stress the importance of checking IDs to their employees.

Others were given harsher suspensions based on the same criteria.

The suspensions handed out to businesses haven't been excessive, Jordan said.

"In comparison with the rest of the state, for municipalities that do show-cause hearings, ours is very light. There are some places on the Front Range that will suspend a liquor license for a week," she said. "We feel like we've introduced this process to the community in baby steps."

Something's working

On May 5, Steamboat Springs police officers conducted their first compliance check in six months. Only one of the 13 businesses that were checked failed.

For city and police officials, the increased compliance rate validates the steps they have taken to curb underage drinking.

"If you look at the recent round of checks and how many businesses passed, I'd say that's a pretty good indication we're being successful," Brenner said.

"Obviously, there have been marked improvements in going from nine of 11 businesses that failed in September to only one of 13 failing," police Capt. Joel Rae said. "This shows that people are taking it seriously."

Rae acknowledged that compliance checks and suspending liquor licenses address only one part of the problem. Minors who have the desire to obtain and drink alcohol will do so, regardless of police and city efforts to thwart underage drinking, he said.

"It's up to the community to make it socially unacceptable for our kids to be drinking. This is only small piece to the puzzle," Rae said.

Creating safe harbor

At least one City Council member thinks there are ways to improve how the city addresses liquor license issues.

During a May 4 liquor license authority hearing, City Council member Towny Anderson asked fellow council members to consider creating a safe harbor for responsible liquor license holders. Doing so would provide those business owners some relief from the threat of having their licenses suspended.

If the city created a restaurant-, liquor-store and bar-owner association with an agreed upon set of standards, Anderson thinks the council can offer some protection to responsible business owners while continuing to punish those who are not.

"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," Anderson said.

"If you can establish a set of standards and have the majority of the businesses complying with those standards, it would be well-received by council because the owners would be taking the initiative to self-monitor. It'd be easier to call out the ones that are irresponsible."

A safe harbor also would put more responsibility on employees by publishing a list of workers who have been cited for serving alcohol to minors.

"It puts the server on the frontline, not the business owner. I don't think we're going to sustain a high level of compliance by punishing business owners who are already worried on a daily basis about what might happen," Anderson said.

Business owners who have liquor licenses are responsible for making sure alcohol isn't sold to minors, Rae said.

"It is state law that alcohol license holders are responsible for not selling to minors. As long as it's Colorado legislation, they're going to be held responsible," he said.

Working together

Gondola Liquors owner Kay Stuart said she always has taken her responsibility as a liquor license holder very seriously. But she also questions punishing business owners for the mistakes made by employees.

"We are very supportive of all efforts of the City Council, the police department and our town in addressing the youth alcohol issues. As the owners, we want to be part of that effort," she said. "We were devastated when one of our key employees failed a compliance check."

Stuart hopes the city will consider amending its ordinance to hold employees responsible for their actions, especially if the employer has complied with the regulations set forth by the city.

"I strongly support City Council setting very strict regulations on business owners with strict penalties when regulations are not enforced. However, if owners comply with such regulations, they should not be punished for an illegal action by an employee," Stuart said.

Brenner said the ordinance the city adopted in the fall is not set in stone. He said the council likely will discuss what, if any, amendments to make to the ordinance.

"We've tried hard to be fair. Did we end up with a system that was absolutely fair? Maybe not. The discussions will continue," he said.

Kristi Brown hopes the city, business owners and the community can come together to address the many issues contributing to underage drinking as well as make changes to current policies.

"I hope (the City Council) will take this whole experience into perspective, get some input from the community and with an open mind make some changes," she said. "Their hearts are in the right place, but maybe they're not in tune with the realities of the community."

Stuart agreed.

"It is very important that we find harmony between liquor license holders and the city because we are all on the same side, with our goal being enforcing the law and creating a safe environment for our youth."

-- To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234

or e-mail adelacruz@steamboatpilot.com


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