Willmar Council members suggest changes to penalties for those in violation of the city's liquor ordinance
WILLMAR -- Willmar City Council members Ron Christianson and Denis Anderson are suggesting possible changes in the penalties against establishments that violate the city's liquor ordinance.
The suggestions grew out of a council work session held earlier this month to review the liquor license ordinance after some council members objected to penalties imposed on licensed establishments, such as restaurants, and employees that violated the ordinance during a police department compliance check last October.
The council's Public Works/Safety Committee on Feb. 9 discussed the penalty levels of the present ordinance and discussed the possibility of having different violations for on-sale and off-sale establishments and whether or not to suspend liquor sales or simply impose monetary penalties.
Committee members wanted more discussion by the full council.
Christianson told the council Tuesday night that he met with managers of four liquor establishments. Christianson said he would retain the penalty for the first violation, which is a written warning to the license holder, and require the holder to meet with a committee and explain steps being taken to eliminate future violations.
For the second violation, Christianson would fine the establishment a percentage of its gross annual liquor sales, such as one-half of one percent, or 2½ percent if the establishment follows "best practices,'' such as training servers and clerks to check identifications to avoid serving to minors.
Under the present ordinance, the second violation requires a fine of $750 and a five-day liquor license suspension.
Council member Bruce DeBlieck wondered if an establishment would make its gross sales information available.
For the third violation, Christianson would double the fine. The present ordinance requires a $1,500 fine and 10-day license suspension.
For the fourth violation, Christianson proposes retaining the present penalty, which is license revocation.
Also, Christianson proposes reducing the time period from five years to three years during which establishments could start over again with no violations.
Christianson said the largest penalties would fall on establishments that sold the most liquor, which he said are off-sale liquor stores where most of the alcohol is obtained by an adult and consumed by underage persons.
"This is very fair,'' he said. "It's according to the ability to pay on how much liquor they sold.''
Anderson would retain the present penalty for the first violation.
For the second violation, he would increase the fine from $750 to $2,500.
For the third violation, he would increase the fine from $1,500 to $4,000. Also, he would suspend the license for three days, but give an establishment a time period such as 10 days from the date the council takes action, or sooner if the establishment so elects, to decide when the suspension would take effect.
For the fourth offense, Anderson proposed increasing the fine to $8,000 and suspending the license for seven days, allowing 21 days during which the suspension could take effect.
For the fifth violation, Anderson would revoke the license.
Anderson would give credit to establishments for undertaking best practices, such as server training through the police department.
After four successful compliance checks, the last offense would be removed, he said.
"We're trying to all get the same sort of thing, maybe a couple different ways to look at it,'' he said. "The thought of the people at the work session was we need to do something. We need to move this forward, but how to do that.''
Mayor Les Heitke suggested the issue return to a committee for more discussion with a written proposal that City Attorney Rich Ronning would review.
Anderson suggested he and Christianson meet with city staff to work on a proposal for committee consideration.
Council members thanked Anderson and Christianson for their thoughts and voted to send the issue to the Public Works/Safety Committee.
In related discussion, the council directed city staff to charge a server's or clerk's first liquor sales violation as a misdemeanor under city ordinance rather than as the more severe gross misdemeanor under state statute.
The committee recommended the change in the level of the first penalty for the employee who sells alcohol to an underage individual. Currently, the server is charged with a gross misdemeanor, but often times the charge is plea bargained to a misdemeanor by the county attorney, according to those familiar with such court cases.
In addition, the council voted to give the police chief discretion to charge the gross misdemeanor if the clerk or server knowingly sells alcohol to an underage person, rather than if the clerk or server was just busy and failed to check identification.