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Amendments proposed to Willmar, Minn., liquor ordinance

WILLMAR -- Fines would increase for establishments that illegally sell alcohol to underage individuals under proposed amendments to Willmar's liquor license ordinance.

However, liquor license suspension and revocation would be eliminated under the proposed change.

The penalty for the first violation would remain the same as it is now, in which a written warning is sent to the license holder and an appearance is required by the license holder at a council committee meeting -- traditionally the Finance Committee -- to explain measures taken by the license holder to eliminate further violations.

But license suspension periods and revocation would be eliminated, a new condition for fifth and subsequent violations would be established, and fines would be increased for the second through fourth violations. (See related story for more details.)

The amendments were explained this week by council member Ron Christianson to the Public Works/Safety Committee. He and council member Denis Anderson and City Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Halliday worked on the amendments in response to police department liquor license compliance checks.

The department has been conducting compliance checks since 2001 when the city adopted an ordinance that set escalating penalties for establishments that fail the checks. During the latest check between April 19 and May 6, 16 of 19 establishments passed and three failed.

Christianson said the current ordinance does a disservice to establishments and the people that work there. He said one establishment that had its third violation closed for 10 days and laid off workers.

"We don't want to do that to people just because someone else made the mistake,'' Christianson said.

Committee Chairman Doug Reese read into the record written comments from resident John Sullivan. Sullivan said he favors larger fines for the second through fourth violations and favors requiring establishments to report the name and date of new hires to the police department, among other things.

Christianson said the council reserves the right to increase the fine or close an establishment. He said establishments are not intending to break the law. He said he doesn't like the ordinance or the compliance checks.

"We're trying to make it as simple as we can without hurting the establishments by closing them down,'' he said. "I don't think the council or the city or this ordinance is here to punish people or establishments because one person makes a mistake. It isn't the establishment's mistake when a waiter or waitress violates the law. That's why we backed off closing down of them.''

Christianson said judging the success of keeping alcohol out of the hands of people under age 21 is difficult. He said most alcohol is bought in liquor stores and consumed elsewhere. "We can't find where underage people are going to establishments to get drunk,'' he said.

Committee member Bruce DeBlieck asked the basis for the fines. He said the establishment holds the license and is responsible for employee training. "I don't think you can lay this totally on the person that serves. The establishment has some responsibility,'' he said.

Christianson said the fine amounts are probably arbitrary. He said the ordinance requires the training.

Committee member Rick Fagerlie said people can be trained but they can still make mistakes.

After discussion, the committee voted to recommend the council set July 5 as the date for a public hearing to consider the amendments. The council will consider the recommendation this Monday.

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