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Liquor license ordinance still on the radar of two on the City Council

WILLMAR -- Two Willmar City Council members want to see changes made in the ordinance setting minimum penalties for establishments that illegally sell alcohol to minors.

Ron Christianson says he doesn't favor the Police Department's periodic checks -- as required by ordinance -- of establishments to monitor compliance of liquor license holders, and said the city should provide incentives to establishments instead of punishment.

Tim Johnson is questioning the fairness of the ordinance because the establishment faces a civil penalty while the server, usually a young person, faces a criminal penalty.

Johnson says young people are not aware of the legal consequences, and he says servers should have training before they get caught in a compliance check.

Christianson and Johnson made their suggestions during council discussion last week about October compliance checks at the city's 22 licensed liquor establishments that resulted in violations at seven establishments, including Green Mill, which committed its second violation.

Police use an underage decoy during the twice-yearly compliance checks. The first violation results in a warning and appearance by the license holder at the Finance Committee to explain steps to avoid a repeat offense. The second violation results in a $750 fine and five-day license suspension. The third offense results in a $1,500 fine and 10-day license suspension. A fourth check results in loss of the license.

Since the ordinance was passed in July 2001, the council revoked one liquor license: that for Vannandy's on Lakeland Drive Southeast. A new club, Double D, opened there. According to City Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Halliday, seven establishments have never had a violation.

Christianson, Johnson and Jim Dokken were in the minority when the council voted 5-3 last week to defeat a Finance Committee motion to delay implementing Green Mill's fine and license suspension until the criminal case against Green Mill's server is decided.

Voting to defeat the motion were Denis Anderson, Steve Ahmann, Rick Fagerlie, Bruce DeBlieck and Doug Reese.

Anderson, Finance chairman, doubted the committee's recommendation. Green Mill representatives had asked the committee Nov. 30 to delay the penalty until the criminal case is decided.

"Perhaps we didn't make the right call at the Finance Committee. I speak in favor of voting the recommendation down and implement the penalty as per the ordinance,'' he said.

The council did not vote to enforce the penalty, but voted to send the matter back to Finance and meet again with Green Mill representatives. The committee will discuss the issue this afternoon.

City Attorney Rich Ronning told the council civil and criminal matters are only indirectly related.

"I think it's a mistake to tie them together and say let's wait and see what happens in a criminal proceeding. You should not be in a position to put the server in where the server is probably going to be pressured by the employer to plead not guilty and fight this,'' Ronning said.

Christianson said the city was making criminals out of ordinary people. He suggested the council review the ordinance at a work session.

"Because the server decided to serve this underage person we're punishing the establishment way beyond what should be,'' he said. "I don't care if it's the third or fourth time. We're in the midst of the holiday season. They have bookings coming up.''

Johnson said he like to see the ordinance addressed. The criminal penalty for the server is a gross misdemeanor, which is prosecuted by the county attorney.

"I'd rather see the ordinance amended and maybe make it a misdemeanor so the city has more control of the outcome of the process, which can help us ensure the fairness of how this law is applied,'' he said.

Police Chief Jim Kulset said the issue was straight-forward.

"I don't think that anybody denied that this violation occurred. I don't think anybody at Green Mill stated that they carded her. The decoy was available to address any concerns during the Finance meeting,'' he said. "I was a bit surprised by the action.''

Reese said establishments are aware of the consequences.

"Once again, we're questioning our own ordinances. I think we have to stand behind what we said we're going to do.''

In other business, the council approved the 2010 budget of $22,218,858, up from the 2009 budget of $20,842,162. The budget includes $100,000 for the storm water mitigation activities and $32,000 for contracting for street sweeping services.

The council also approved the 2010 levy of $3,668,705, up from $3,525,325 from 2009. City Administrator Michael Schmit said the levy has gradually grown over the years but has been limited to increases in market value and development in the city.

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