Our View: Approve alcohol ordinance | SteamboatToday.com

Our View: Approve alcohol ordinance

Steamboat Springs City Council should approve an ordinance designed to enhance its ability to police those who sell alcohol to underage or obviously intoxicated people, but not before making one important change.

At issue is a proposed new version of the rules wielded by the council in its capacity as the local liquor licensing authority. The council approved the ordinance on a first reading earlier this month and is scheduled Tuesday to take a second and final vote on an amended version.

Council members should be commended for taking on the issue. It’s a tricky one to address in ways that are both fair and effective, and addressing it stands a good chance of annoying constituents on both sides of the sales counter. They could have kept their heads down and let police deal with the problem. And clearly there is a problem.

In September, a 20-year-old man working with police was able to buy alcohol at nine of the 11 places he approached. That was the worst performance by alcohol sellers since police began the compliance checks, but every time the underage operatives have gone to work, they’ve been able to buy alcohol somewhere in town.

The police department and the city council seem to have reached the reasonable conclusion that the tools available to the community through the judicial process alone are not enough. In some cases, the fines that courts are allowed to assess apparently were not enough to make a lasting impression. In other cases, police and prosecutors were not able to meet the relatively strict burden of proof the judicial process demands, so the charges didn’t stick.

The ordinance attempts to correct that situation by giving the government rules with more bite that can be applied in an administrative forum where the burden of proof is lighter. Specifically, it calls for a three-step process with increasingly severe consequences for each new violation.

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A first offense would result in the violator’s license being suspended for anywhere from two to 15 days; a second offense within 12 months would merit suspension from five to 30 days; a second offense after 12 months would be from five to 21 days; and a third offense calls for anything from a 15-day suspension to revocation of the license.

In all cases, the city council could consider extenuating and mitigating circumstances, and there are many possibilities for both. An offense committed by a new clerk duped by a sophisticated fake ID, for example, or by a disgruntled clerk working his last shift, doesn’t merit the same response as would an offense committed by the store owner.

But while the new rules allow the council a lot of discretion, they don’t allow it to accept fines in lieu of suspending a violator’s license for at least two days. And there, we think, lies the flaw.

Overall, the new ordinance strikes a good balance between fairness and effectiveness, but the rules should be amended to allow a first offender with a reasonable explanation to escape a two-day suspension. The ordinance as written allows the council to hold most of a violator’s suspension time in abeyance for a year. The council could, for example, decide on a five-day suspension but hold three days on the books for a year, so the business would only have to stop selling alcohol for two days. If another violation occurred, the banked time would automatically apply. A good compromise might be to allow a first offender’s total suspension time to be abated for a year, forgiven if no further offenses occurred, and enhanced if they did.