Help for East Bethel violation hearings

The city of East Bethel may change the way it handles city ordinance violations, from the way it conducts hearings to the punishments handed down for alcohol or liquor sales violations.

Mark Vierling, East Bethel city attorney. File photo by Eric Hagen
Mark Vierling, East Bethel city attorney. File photo by Eric Hagen

The East Bethel City Council April 18 passed an ordinance that gives it the opportunity to hire a hearing officer for certain license or permit violations.

“I don’t think the city council should act as the hearing board,” Councilmember Bill Boyer said. “I think it’s time we hired a professional to act as a hearing officer for the city.”

The new ordinance does not mean the council must get outside opinion on all matters relating to the sale of alcohol or a tobacco product to an underage person or for dog bite incidents, for instance. As has been the case in the past, the council could conduct its own hearing and make a ruling.

According to City Attorney Mark Vierling, although the hearing officer would oversee the proceedings in which both law enforcement and the business representatives would state their sides of the story, the responsibility of choosing the punishment for license violations would rest with the council unless the council chooses to defer judgment to the hearing officer.

Councilmember Robert DeRoche Jr. said he has no problem hiring a hearing officer for extreme cases, but not for all cases.

“I think part of the job of being up here is to make decisions and be able to use a little discretion,” DeRoche said. “A hearing officer doesn’t know the people in the city. I’m more for working with people and I don’t know if a hearing officer is going to want to do that.”

Councilmember Steve Voss said that just using the term “representative” is vague and wondered if the council should further define what qualifications and background someone would need to be hired.

Vierling said the council could decide to include this framework in the ordinance or address it when someone needs to be hired.

What usually happens is the hearing officer conducts proceedings separate from the council meeting, but it is still open to the public. he said.

Minutes are kept and shared with the council, which can then make a decision on fines or license suspensions or revocations, Vierling said.

According to Vierling, the role of the council would not be to re-open the hearing in these situations.

The ordinance clearly states that all appeals would be handled by the Minnesota Court of Appeals and not the city council.

Alcohol, tobacco sales violations

Besides modifying how some violation hearings may be held, the council is also contemplating how much violators who sell alcohol or tobacco products to minors should automatically be punished.

The council has discussed revisions to these two ordinances over a few meetings since February, but has yet to approve any changes. The council began discussing the issue Feb. 1, which was two weeks after the council fined the Blue Ribbons Pines Disc Golf Course owner $250 for an alcohol sales violation and fined Coon Lake Market $150 for a tobacco sales violation. Both businesses were caught during compliance checks by the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office.

The father of the owner of the disc golf course sold a beer to a 17-year-old. The owner — Ray Jordan — said the family runs a landscape business and the disc golf course and his father has been nice enough to help out. They had not really trained him on alcohol sales because he typically would not work behind the counter.

A clerk at Coon Lake Market sold a pack of Camel Light cigarettes to a 16-year-old. She asked for his driver’s license and he provided it, but she misread the ID and thought he was 18 years old.

The current ordinance says a fine of $250 administrative penalty will be issued to the individual employee who sold alcohol to a person under the age of 21, for example.

The council expressed interest in some leniency if it felt the person made an honest mistake and owned up to it.

“What got it started is we wanted some flexibility in sentencing, for lack of a better term,” Councilmember Heidi Moegerle said.

When to use the word “will” instead of “may” when referring to punishments is obviously a key word anywhere that penalties are discussed. At the April 4 council meeting, Voss questioned why the draft ordinance in front of him stated that a second alcohol sales violation within two years of the first violation may result in a civil fine of up to $1,000 and 20 hours of community service.

Voss said he thought the council’s consensus at a previous meeting was to use the word “will” or “shall” when there are two or more violations within a two-year period.

“That sends a stronger message, especially when they’re here for a first violation and we remind them that for a second violation you will get fined, you will lose your license or your permit may be suspended,” Voss said. “What’s the message it sends to the community? That’s more my concern.”

Mayor Richard Lawrence said using the word “shall” takes away any leeway the council has in determining punishment.

Boyer said he has no problem using the word “may,” but he would like to see the potential for a license suspension or revocation after the second violation.

Eric Hagen is at [email protected]