Handling of compliance checks called into question
by Bob Grawey
Alcohol and minors is always an issue that elicits strong opinions, and that is the case with the June 1 alcohol compliance check failure at Vintage Golf Course in Otsego.
Owner Chris Bulow was fined $1,000 under Otsego’s liquor ordinance for the infraction committed by one of his employees.
Appearing before the Otsego City Council June 13, Bulow asked for a reduced fine.
He also voiced concern and disapproval that his employee who failed the compliance check would suffer no legal consequences.
At least some council members seemed to agree with Bulow, in that the city was under the impression that employees who failed one of these checks would be prosecuted by Wright County.
Otsego City Planner Dan Licht says the city instituted a $2,000 fine for first offenses, the maximum allowed by the state, levied at the business owner with employee prosecutions in mind.
“This action affects the business owners, but not the employee that made the violation,” Licht says. “When the current format for penalties was adopted as part of the city code, it was with the expectation that Wright County (would) follow through with consequences for the employee.”
Those consequences for the employee would be a $3,000 fine and/or up to one year in jail.
That is not happening, though, according to Wright County Health Promotion Coordinator Jill Hylla.
She says no one is currently being charged when failing an alcohol compliance check.
Otsego business owners like Bulow may not be getting off scot-free, but that $2,000 fine is now $1,000 for first-time offenses. That could be reduced yet again as city council members are entertaining ideas of lowering that penalty once again.
That came as a result of Bulow’s contention to Otsego City Council members June 13 that the $1,000 fine was still too steep and he should not have to pay for his employee’s mistake.
Otsego questions, along with Bulow, why the county was not prosecuting employees of these alcohol compliance failures.
Wright County District Attorney (D.A.) Tom Kelly says it is a matter of discretion and common sense.
Employees used to get prosecuted by Kelly’s office when they failed a compliance check. It was, in fact, a mandatory requirement in getting a state grant.
The grant was used for educating employees pertaining to alcohol and cigarette sales to minors.
To get the grant, Kelly says counties had to prosecute 100 percent on those employees failing an alcohol compliance check.
That held true for a teenaged employee, too, caught selling or serving alcohol to a minor. It carried a gross misdemeanor charge that stayed with the person throughout his or her life.
“It got pretty silly,” Kelly says, “when the primary purpose of that grant in the first place was not to get a pound of flesh from some young teenager that misread a driver’s license, as it was to educate owners who would hopefully then educate employees so we could educate the public so alcohol would not get sold to underage kids.”
Licht says Otsego would like to see a two-track effort made that would hand down consequences for both the owner and the employee who fails the compliance check.
“The city adopted the schedule of penalties for the business owner as part of its city code as it is allowed under state statute and we would like to see Wright County follow through with the employee when a violation occurs.”
But Kelly says charging a teen, for instance, in these situations is taking a step backward from the initial intent of the grant’s purpose.
If, however, someone is selling alcohol out the back door of a business, or an employee has repeat compliance failures, Kelly says he would not hesitate to prosecute.
The Wright County D.A. does not agree with Bulow’s stance that his employee should suffer legal consequences for the June 1 failure, calling it “heavy-handed.”
Kelly adds it is “sad” if a business owner feels their employee suffer legal ramifications just because they had to pay a fine.
The employee might be least to blame, though.
Hylla says that as far as she knows, only one other golf course in Wright County has failed an alcohol compliance check.
That was in 2001.
Bulow’s two Otsego golf courses have failed three compliance checks since 2008. Compliance checks are made twice a year.
“If I was the owner,” Kelly says, “I would hope that if I had a server that sold (alcohol) to a minor and it cost me (a) $500 to $1,000 civil penalty, I would do everything within my power to educate the next server I might have in my facility.”
He says there are many incentives for business owners such as regular classes Kelly says employees can take at no cost.
Hylla adds that businesses can get liquor liability discounts on their insurance when employees maintain a good compliance record.
“We’ll continue to prosecute underneath the procuring statute which is a gross misdemeanor for cases we feel are appropriate,” Kelly explains. “We would hope establishments would all take advantage of the training that’s put on by the public health, by law enforcement and by the sheriff’s department.”
Bulow told Otsego City Council members, though, that only some of his employees are currently trained.
The employee that failed the compliance check did have training at another golf course, but Hylla says that employes should get training every year. Retraining should take place at a minimum of every two years, she claims.
“I just don’t know how you make people care,” Hylla says, “until something hits home with someone they care about. Some people just don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”