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Willmar City Council approves liquor ordinance amendments

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WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council has approved a series of ordinance amendments that alter the penalties for licensed liquor establishments that sell alcohol to minors. The ordinance establishes penalties for violations of state law and ordinances regulating the sale of alcoholic beverages.

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The amendments remove the most contentious provision, which was suspension or revocation of a license and replaces it with higher fines.

The policy adopted by the council in 2001 of having the police department conduct twice-a-year compliance checks at licensed establishments will continue.

But the amendments change the status of accumulated violations: When a license holder has not had a violation for three consecutive years or when a license holder has successfully passed three consecutive checks, whichever time period is shorter, the violation level drops one level and each subsequent successful compliance check drops one additional level.

Previously, the status period for no violations was five consecutive years or successfully passing five consecutive checks.

A new amendment requires persons directly or indirectly selling alcoholic beverages to attend a police chief-approved servers training program.

Council members Denis Anderson and Ron Christianson proposed the amendments in response to compliance checks during the past two years in which seven of the city's 22 licensed liquor establishments failed a police department compliance check and one establishment, Green Mill, closed for 10 days.

Christianson said the ordinance allows the council to impose a greater penalty than the minimum established. He said establishments support the amendments. The increased fines are still a penalty on the businesses.

"We have authority to impose a stiffer penalty or close them down if we think that's what needs to be done,'' he said. "I could not support closing down an establishment one more time in this city.''

However, Christianson wanted a way to judge how well the checks are working. He did not believe that underage people go to a bar or establishment to drink and get drunk, but that it's persons of legal age buying alcohol for younger people.

"They intend to break the law. That's where most of the alcohol is consumed. I believe that 95 percent of the liquor that is consumed is liquor purchased at a liquor store. The servers do not intend to break the law. They make a mistake, we all make mistakes.''

Two Green Mill employees voiced their support during a Tuesday night hearing.

Candace Huisman of Atwater, delivery and dispatch manager in Willmar, said one employee's wrong choice "might be the end of our business.''

Joe Kohaut of Burnsville, vice president of food and beverage for Torgerson Properties, which operate the Willmar Green Mill, said the company does not want minors drinking. He said the company supports the changes and understands the company is responsible for servers.

He said the training is a great addition and he listed the company's requirements and penalties for servers. Kohaut said the server whose mistake led to the 10-day license suspension was terminated and others earning wages and tips were penalized because of that one person.

Offering an opposite opinion was Laura Lindeman, coordinator of the Kandiyohi County Drug Free Communities Coalition. She said the amendments tend to remove the council's authority to suspend or revoke an establishment's right to operate after having a second or more violation.

Lindeman said the coalition would like options to suspend or revoke retained because serving underage youth is a serious matter. Lindeman said she was pleased the council proposed adding the server training requirement.

"We would like to see stiffer monetary penalties than what is proposed to deter servers and establishments from serving underage youth and the suspension and revocation options returned in the language as it was,'' she said.

Willmar resident John Sullivan agreed that businesses should not be shut down, but he said an employer "has to own up'' for what that employee did wrong. He recommended a larger fine increase and suggested the amendments be returned to committee for more discussion.

Council member Tim Johnson said there is some consequence for the terminated server who was charged with a criminal offense and dealt with in the courts.

Johnson said he has no problem with the requirement that the license holder who has a fifth violation appear before the council. He said discussions at the Finance Committee, where license holders who have their first violation tell how they will avoid future violations, are very fruitful and work well.

Johnson said it's a "humbling experience for the proprietor to own up to what happened. To me that's a bit of a penalty.''

The amendments were approved 7-1 with Anderson, Christianson, Johnson, Bruce DeBlieck, Rick Fagerlie, Jim Dokken and Doug Reese voting in favor and Steve Ahmann against.

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David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150
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