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Willmar council discussing liquor law compliance

WILLMAR -- Possible changes to the city's liquor ordinance were discussed by five members of the Willmar City Council during a one-hour work session Wednesday, but no decisions were made.

The discussion involved the possibility of changing some of the penalties against establishments that illegally sell alcohol to minors, possibly offering incentives to establishments that use best practices to train servers to check identification for minors, and the possibility of having the city attorney's office rather than the county attorney's office prosecute restaurant servers who illegally serve alcohol to a minor.

No consensus was reached and the issues will be referred to the Public Works/Safety Committee for more discussion, said Bruce DeBlieck, who presided at the work session.

Others attending the work session were council members Denis Anderson, Ron Christianson, Rick Fagerlie and Tim Johnson. Mayor Les Heitke and council members Doug Reese, Jim Dokken and Steve Ahmann were absent.

Also present were City Clerk Kevin Halliday, Police Chief Jim Kulset and City Attorney Rich Ronning.

The work session was held to review the liquor license ordinance and related issues after some council members recently voiced objection to penalties imposed on licensed establishments, such as restaurants, and servers who violate the ordinance.

The objections grew out of last October's Police Department compliance checks of licensed establishments, both restaurants and liquor stores, during which a hired police decoy under the age of 21 entered establishments and requested alcohol.

Some establishments failed the check and were fined and their licenses to sell alcohol were suspended for a number of days, and the servers were charged with illegal sale of alcohol.

Anderson said the object of the ordinance is to prevent alcohol from being served to minors. Anderson said he talked with four establishments. Two said they had no problem with compliance checks and two said they understood the need for the checks. The bigger issue, he said, is whether the penalties fit the violation.

Under the ordinance, first-time violators are issued a warning and must appear before the Finance Committee to explain measures to be taken to prevent future violations.

The penalty for a second violation is a $750 fine and five-day license suspension.

The penalty for the third violation is a $1,500 fine and 10-day license suspension.

The fourth violation results in license revocation.

Christianson asked if compliance checks are the best way to keep alcohol away from minors. DeBlieck said the checks are intended to keep minors from having access to alcohol.

Christianson said most liquor is bought at a liquor store and served to minors and not at restaurants. Anderson said the city has a social host ordinance under which the host of a gathering where alcohol is served to minors can be charged.

Christianson said he can understand a mistake being made by the server for not checking identification because the server is not intending to break the law. He said he does not like punishing the establishment for the behavior of the server.

Among other things, the city ordinance charges anyone selling alcohol to an underage person with a misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and up to $1,000 fine.

But the server can also face a more serious state gross misdemeanor charge, which carries a penalty of up to one year in jail and up to a $3,000 fine.

All charges have historically been sent to the county attorney's office for prosecution at the request of the county attorney, according to Kulset and Ronning.

Johnson, a public defender, said there is no legal requirement for sending the cases to the county attorney's office. Johnson said his concern is that 99 percent of the cases are plea-bargained down to a misdemeanor, which could be handled by the city attorney's office.

According to Ronning, plea-bargaining has been true in recent times.

Johnson said he would like to provide incentives to establishments to ensure compliance. Johnson said he did not support the idea of licensing servers but perhaps requiring a certificate for servers who receive training.

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