City bars: well-behaved or lightly policed?

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July 28, 2003 // UPDATED 10:59 am - April 30, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

City bars are rarely penalized for bothering nearby residents. The city says its informal process is working.

City action allowing bars to stay open until 2 a.m. has focused attention on how well Minneapolis' police responds to bar-related problems, from residents' noise complaints to serious problems, such as alcohol-related fights.

City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), chair of the City Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, wants to review the system for cracking down on problem bars. He has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday, July 30.

"The standard neighborhood complaint is that people call and nothing happens," said Niziolek. "There is an interest in how the process works and see if there are ways to make it better to address residential concerns."

Given the bar-closing debate, "this is the perfect time to look at it," he said.

Some councilmembers sought to restrict the 2 a.m. bar closing option to Downtown establishments only, concerned a citywide policy would exacerbate neighborhood problems. Others argued a problem bar is a problem bar -- whether it closed at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m.

Rather than restrict the 2 a.m. bar time Downtown, the solution was enforcement, they said.

During the City Council's bar-closing debate, the name that surfaced as the poster-child for enforcement was Banana Joe's.

The now defunct Banana Joe's, 15 S. 5th St., definitely had problems -- from serving underage drinkers, overserving those of legal drinking age and having faulty crowd control, resulting in fights and multiple stabbings, according to city regulators.

Since Jan. 1, 2000, city staff has sought tough sanctions against bars on only five occasions -- and Banana Joe's accounted for two of them.

The licensing system is geared to deal with liquor code violations, such as sale to minors or illegal hours of operation, rather than with resident livability issues.

Other than Banana Joe's and establishments where city licensing already has taken action, Downtown residents have not called to complain about individual bars, said an aide to City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), who represents Loring Park, Elliot Park and the central business district west of Hennepin Avenue.

A bar owner's wake up call The city licenses more than 100 kinds of businesses, from antique car dealers to "wreckers of buildings." It licenses bowling alleys, car washes, garbage haulers, motels, motor vehicle dealers, pawn shops, plumbers, taxis, tattoo businesses and shooting galleries, as well as bars.

The city has issued roughly 470 on-sale beer, wine and/or liquor licenses. The city's Regulatory Services Department makes sure the licensees have adequate insurance and meet other requirements. It has two full-time liquor license investigators. The Police Department has a separate but related licensing division that investigates complaints. It has one full-time liquor license investigator. The police and civilian staff collaborate on license application reviews and enforcement issues.

James Moncur, director of licensing and consumer services, and Lt. Phil Hafvenstein of the Police Licensing Division, describe an informal process to resolve initial complaints, with progressive penalties and a more formal process if problems continue.

Licensing or police licensing staff talk to the bar owner, and if the owner takes care of the problem, it doesn't go any further, they said. Moncur said the system "is set up to resolve complaints in the fastest, most economical way we can."

Hafvenstein said it is easier to change behavior with a phone call "than it is to go through a long, drawn-out regulatory process.

"We give them every chance to modify their behavior on the cheap," he said. "Our wake-up call to them is usually something that solves the problem"

Bar sanctions In spring 2002, the city Licensing Department received authority to write administrative tags on businesses that violate city codes -- from grocery stores with a litter problem or an unlicensed tow truck to tax cab drivers driving with open-toed sandals. Fines generally run between $50 and $500.

Prior to administrative tags, licensing staff wrote criminal tags that clogged the court system, Moncur said. "They were not getting their just hearing."

The city could issue a tag based on a detailed witness statement that includes the date, time and description of the problems, said Julie Casey, a licensing inspector.

From May 4, 2002 to June 14, 2003, licensing staff wrote 184 administrative tags totaling more than $31,000, according to a licensing printout. However, none was for issues against bars for livability-type problems, such as noise.

For more serious problems, the city may seek action against a bar owner's license.

In licensing jargon, they call it a TAC hearing, or Technical Advisory Committee. Although more formal, the city still tries to work with the owner to reach a mutually agreed-upon set of problem fixes. If the licensee objects, the matter goes to an administrative law judge for a contested process.

The City Council has to approve the agreement.

The five TAC hearings in the past three-plus years were Margarita Bella, 1032 3rd Ave. NE; Blues Alley, 15 N. Glenwood Ave.; Red Sea Restaurant and Bar; 320 Cedar Ave. and Banana Joe's, 15 S. 5th St. -- twice. Problems ranged from after-hours consumption, underage drinking, assaults and drunken behavior to failure to pay sales tax.

Banana Joe's repeated problems drew the stiffest penalties, including a $20,000 fine and seven-day license suspension (three days stayed).

Downtown's Pizza Luc, 333 S. 7th St., went through the ALJ process. Pizza Luc challenged a city citation for serving alcohol to an underaged person in a police-monitored controlled buy. The city prevailed before an administrative law judge.

Hafvenstein said the relatively few TAC hearings reflected the success of the informal process of resolving complaints. "It is rare that I find a licensee that doesn't want to do it right once they are made aware of the problem," he said.

Focus: Underage drinking The Police Licensing Division focuses heavily on underage drinking, using police-monitored decoys.

It conducted 235 random checks of on-sale establishments in 2001-2002 and 85 percent passed, an improvement from the 52 percent that passed in 1998, the first year of reported data, the Youth Access to Alcohol Compliance Report said.

Other than the TAC hearings and the Compliance Report, the city does not compile information on bar complaints, other than what is in the 470-odd individual files.

Police Licensing reviews 911 calls daily for specific liquor code violations, such as sales to underage persons, Hafvenstein said. It does not look for such things as noise complaints or livability crimes. It does not consider 911 or service calls to a particular address when evaluating liquor license renewal -- unless problems get serious enough to need a TAC hearing.

Residents with bar-related complaints should call 911 at the time of the problem, but they also should follow up the next day with a call to Police Licensing to register a complaint, Hafvenstein said. The number is 673-3002.

He expects to get more complaints with the new 2 a.m. bar closing time, he said.

"I am pretty optimistic we will have some complaints and we will be able to deal with them."