Local bars: well-behaved or lightly penalized?

City bars are rarely punished for generating neighborhood problems. The city says its informal process is working, but as 2 a.m. closing time rolls out, some say a closer look is needed.

City action allowing bars to stay open until 2 a.m. has focused attention on how well Minneapolis responds to neighborhood complaints about noise, traffic and unruly patrons.

Some councilmembers receive constituent complaints about bar-related problems. The city first tries resolving problems informally, and has only imposed fines and license suspensions on five occasions since 2000 — none in Southwest.

"The standard neighborhood complaint is that people call and nothing happens," said City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), chair of the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee. His committee will review the city process for cracking down on bar-related problems on Wednesday, July 30.

"There is an interest in how the process works and seeing if there are ways to make it better to address residential concerns," Niziolek said. Given the bar closing debate, "this is the perfect time to look at it."

During the debate, a few councilmembers sought to restrict the 2 a.m. closing to Downtown, concerned that a citywide policy would increase neighborhood problems. The winning side argued that a problem bar is a problem bar — whether it closes at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. Rather than restrict the 2 a.m. bar time downtown, the solution was better enforcement, they said.

License enforcement appears geared to deal with liquor code violations — such as sale to minors or illegal hours of operation — rather than neighborhood livability problems.

Carol Wilson, a Lowry Hill East resident, lives near the Red Dragon Restaurant, 2116 Lyndale Ave. S., and said she has called repeatedly to complain about rowdy patrons. She said the city has told neighbors to work with the bars on their own.

"What I do now, I give the Dragon a call, and say, ‘The noise is too much. Do you want to take care of this or do you want me to call 911?’" she said. "They will send out their bouncers into their parking lot to disperse the gathering.

"I resent having to be the policeman. I don’t think there is any other way around it."

A bar owner’s wake-up call

The city licenses more than 100 kinds of businesses, from antique car dealers to "wrecker of building." 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 bar owners, 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, more often than not it solves the problem."

Bar sanctions

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 taxi 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 license 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 were issued 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 (ALJ) 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. N.E., Blues Alley, 15 N. Glenwood Ave., Red Sea Restaurant and Bar, 320 Cedar Ave., and Banana Joe’s, 15 S. 5th St. — twice. Pizza Luce, 333 S. 7th St., went through the ALJ process contesting a citation for serving an underage person. The city prevailed.

Problems included after-hours consumption, underage drinking, assaults and drunken behavior.

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

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. It uses police-monitored decoys to check on alcohol servers.

It conducted 235 random checks of on-sale establishments in 2002, and 85 percent passed, an improvement from the 52 percent that passed in 1998, the second year of the programs, a city report said.

Other than the TAC hearings and the Youth Access to Alcohol Compliance Report, the city does not compile information on bar-related complaints.

The city’s licensing and consumer services division keeps files on individual liquor license establishments. The police licensing division maintains a separate set of files.

The Southwest Journal reviewed files for four popular Southwest liquor licensees: the C.C. Club, 2600 Lyndale Ave., and Liquor Lyle’s, 2021 Hennepin Ave. S. (bars Niziolek identified as a source of constituent complaints), Westrum’s, 4415 Nicollet Ave. S., which generated some complaints to the Kingfield Neighborhood Association, and the Red Dragon.

The Regulatory Service Department had thick files with information on liability and workers compensation insurance and license renewal forms. A review of paperwork from 1990 to the present showed almost no problems. The C.C. Club had one mention of a fine for tobacco sales to a minor, and Westrum’s had one mention of problems with patrons loitering in the parking lot.

The Police Licensing files had information on alcohol sales to minors. Westrum’s file, for instance, had no complaints. It had only three entries, each one noting a congratulations letter sent for passing the youth access compliance check. The C.C. Club, Liquor Lyle’s and the Red Dragon each had three congratulations letters.

The Red Dragon had the most entries: eight dating back to 1992. In addition to the congratulations letters, it had several complaints, including two $1,000 fines for sale to an underage person.

Substantiating livability problems can be tough, if Steve Jevning’s experience is any indication. Jevning, the Kingfield Neighborhood Association’s past president, said he got complaints from Westrum’s neighbors: loud cars, loud people, people peeing in the bushes and hanging around after closing.

To see for himself, he went four different weekends, four different times.

"There was never anything," he said. "I could never track down with any certainty what was actually happening, what was routine and what was an aberration."

911 Calls

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 police-call data when evaluating liquor license renewal — unless problems get serious enough to go to a TAC hearing.

Hafvenstein cautions against reading too much into police calls, however. "It can be totally irrelevant unless you look at the nature of the calls," he said.

A review of calls to Westrum’s address for the past 18 months showed the following codes: two disturbances, two music complaints, two domestic assaults, two "customer trouble," a fight, an assault and a "person down."

Police calls to the C.C. Club address for the past 18 months included four disturbances, four fights, two assaults, two "people down," one "customer trouble" and a mysterious disappearance.

Police calls to Liquor Lyle’s address for the past 18 months included seven "customer trouble," six assaults, four fights, three disturbances and one intoxicated person.

Hafvenstein said people with complaints should call 911 at the time of the problem, but also should follow up the next day with a call to police licensing, 673-3002.

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

"Change causes people to realize things more," he said. "I am pretty optimistic we will have some complaints and we will be able to deal with them."