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Ordinance holds host accountable for underage drinking

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council has approved a "social host'' ordinance that prohibits a person from hosting an event or gathering where alcohol is present and possessed or consumed by persons under 21 years of age.

Under the ordinance, a person could be charged with a misdemeanor if he/she hosts an event or gathering where alcohol or alcoholic beverages are present when the host knows or reasonably knows that an underage person will or does consume any alcohol or possesses the alcoholic beverage with the intent to consume.

Further, the host would be charged for failing to take steps to prevent possession or consumption by the underage person.

The ordinance had been in the works for about a month.

During a public hearing, Police Chief Jim Kulset said the ordinance has some exceptions. It would not apply to conduct solely between an underage person and his or her parents while present at the parents' house. The ordinance does not apply to legally-protected religious observances, does not apply to any licensed liquor establishment which has its own set of rules, and does not apply to situations where an underage person is lawfully possessing alcoholic beverages in the scope of his or her employment.

Kulset said he brought up the ordinance because there are no consequences for an individual who hosts underage drinking parties, unless the police department can prove the host supplied the alcoholic beverages.

"My personal comment would be an individual who hosts these underage drinking parties should be held at least as accountable as the underage person who's drinking,'' he said.

No one in the audience commented or asked questions about the ordinance. Mayor Les Heitke asked Kulset why the ordinance is needed.

Kulset said calls for service to noisy gatherings and loud parties were up 38 percent in 2007. He said fight calls were up 27 percent and alcohol violations were up about 10 percent.

"Obviously we're not telling you that this ordinance is the panacea to solve all those issues,'' he said. "But it is one more tool for your police department's tool box. It's not a foreign ordinance. It exists in a lot of other communities including Kandiyohi County.''

In other business, the council voted to change the name of the Willmar Area Senior Citizens Community Center to the Willmar Community Center. The new name was recommended by the Senior Council and recommended by the City Council's Public Works/Safety Committee.

Committee chairman Doug Reese said the name change would help market the center to more activities. He said more activities are happening at the center than just senior citizen activities.

The council also:

- Authorized the city to receive a $1.25 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development for bioscience business development at the MinnWest Technology Campus.

- Was told by Reese that the Public Works Committee did not favor pursuing an ordinance at this time that would allow the use of golf carts on city streets.

- Approved a $17,191 allowance modification in the Graham Construction contract to cover unforeseen cost of replacing soil unsuitable for compaction during excavation for part of the new wastewater treatment plant. Even though soil borings were conducted throughout the construction site, a pocket of unsuitable soil might be missed, explained City Administrator Michael Schmit. When excavation begins, a contractor may find more unsuitable soil than anticipated. Schmit said a $500,000 contingency fund in the contract addresses those kinds of problems. Because the project is so large, other unanticipated problems may also occur, according to Schmit.