East Bethel approves new rules for to enforce alcohol, tobacco sale violations

The East Bethel City Council May 2 made some revisions to its ordinances regarding alcohol and tobacco sales violations to give itself more enforcement leeway for violations and to clearly state that the license holder and not the clerk would face financial penalties from the city.

Any business that sells tobacco products to a person under the age of 18 or alcohol to a person under the age 21 violates the law and must go through a criminal proceeding in Anoka County District Court, which could result in fines and community service to the clerk who sold the product.

A city council also has the ability to enact its own punishment, including fines and community service, if ordinances are in place to show what could happen.

Under East Bethel’s old tobacco sales ordinance, a first violation would result in the license holder being fined $150. The second violation within 24 months means a $300 fine. The clerk would have faced a lower fine.

Under the new tobacco ordinance, the council could use its discretion and not issue any fine for a first or second violation. The council has some discretion for alcohol sales violations, but less than under the tobacco ordinance. Community service could still be part of the punishment.

The clerk will no longer face a city administrative penalty under the new tobacco or alcohol sales ordinances.

Councilmember Heidi Moegerle at the May 2 meeting suggested the possibility of leniency for the first two violations. The tobacco ordinance in the May 2 council packet included language such as “First violation: The city shall impose a civil fine of up to $150.”

According to City Attorney Mark Vierling, the words “up to $150” mean the council could theoretically issue a $1 fine and would not be obligated to charge $150 to a license holder as would have happened under the old ordinance.

Moegerle said people will read ordinances differently, so she wanted to replace the word “shall” with “may” so it is clear that the council could issue a warning instead of a fine.

“I like having greater options,” she said.

Moegerle said the same treatment should have been given to the alcohol sales ordinance. The first violation license fee is up to $500 and the second violation is up to $1,000.

However, Councilmember Robert DeRoche Jr. and then Mayor Richard Lawrence said they feel alcohol sales to underage people are more serious than the tobacco sales so they wanted to keep the word “will” for the first two violations instead of substituting in the word “may.” Moergele agreed to change her stance.

Nevertheless, future councils still have leniency because the caveat is that a fine could be “up to” a certain amount. The ordinance also clearly states that the council would waive the licensee fine for a first violation or reduce the fine for future violations if the license holder could prove that the clerk went through the responsible beverage service training. If the license holder could not prove within 14 days of the date of the violation that the clerk previously completed the training, the council could suspend or revoke the license if the business has multiple violations within a two-year period.

Vierling would be concerned about consistent enforcement in the future, he said. If the council does not fine the license holder of a business that sold alcohol or tobacco products to an underage person, the next violator may challenge the city if they are fined.

The council on a 3-0 vote approved these changes to the alcohol and tobacco sales ordinances. Councilmembers Bill Boyer and Steve Voss were absent from the May 2 meeting when the decision was made.

This topic has been on the city’s radar since February. It all started after the council went through a Jan. 18 hearing regarding Blue Ribbons Pines Disc Golf Course.

According to Anoka County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Mike Wahl, a 17-year-old female working with him on business compliance checks purchased a bottle of Coors Light beer from Richard Jordan Aug. 31, 2011 at Blue Ribbons Pines. Richard is the father of the business owner and license holder Ray Jordan.

Moegerle made a motion to waive the licensee and clerk fine as long as the business proved within 90 days that the staff had completed the responsible beverage service training.

According to Ray Jordan, his father Richard was helping out with the family disc golf course and landscaping business, but had not been trained for alcohol sales. He just filled in as the clerk at the time of the sale because he saw that someone needed help.

The council ultimately approved a reduced licensee fine of $250 if the business proved it trained employees on the importance of asking for identification from any person who wants to buy alcohol.

Voss said license holders must be held responsible for their actions. If the intent of the council is that a first time violator not be fined, the ordinance should be changed to reflect this, he said.

Over the next three months, the council and Vierling worked on rewriting the ordinances and developed a new hearing ordinance to state what the process would be when a violation happens. This hearing ordinance gives the council the ability to hire a hearing officer, such as a retired judge, for the job of taking testimony. The council could still make the final determination on punishment.

Eric Hagen is at [email protected]