City laws must be changed to give officials more ways to tighten the grip on problematic downtown taverns, St. Charles aldermen agreed Monday night. The question is how long must aldermen wait to bulk up the city code.
The decision came after a report by the police department showed calls to downtown bars for assault/battery, disorderly conduct, public indecency and intoxicated subjects all increased during the 2012-13 review period compared to the previous two years.
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While police officials said the higher numbers are due in large part to police paying more attention to the problems at the taverns, aldermen didn't fully buy into the idea that the situation is improving.
Aldermen Cliff Carrignan and William Turner both pointed to the increase in police incidents involving intoxicated subjects as the most telling point that some bar owners haven't tackled the root cause of all the other police incidents -- overserved patrons.
"This overserving, I don't know what's going on with that, but it looks like they're dancing around the real problem," Turner said.
Police Chief Jim Lamkin agreed overserving continues to be a problem that requires more diligence by bar owners and staffers. But aldermen weren't content with the idea that police will continue to press the issue.
Instead, Alderman Ray Rogina called for exploration of several changes to the city's laws that govern liquor licenses. Although state law doesn't define what a tavern is, Rogina said the city must differentiate between establishments that primarily serve food and businesses that mostly serve alcohol in the licensing process.
That will allow the alderman a better understanding of what kind of business they are approving when they issue a liquor license, Rogina said.
He also called for the creation of a two-tiered closing time for businesses with liquor licenses. The idea is, like Naperville, the city would allow for a "late night privilege" of staying open until 2 a.m. for establishments with consistently clean records. Other establishments would close as early as midnight, according to one suggestion by Alderman Jim Martin.
Rogina also backed the idea of a new liquor control commission in the city.
Currently, the mayor serves as the city's lone liquor commissioner and determines the penalties for license violations. Rogina wants a multimember commission that would include at least one alderman to take over those duties.
All aldermen present agreed with all those suggestions. They pressed city staff members to come back with a draft of changes to the city's laws as soon as the end of May. But city staff members said changing the rules right now presents a possible legal dilemma for the city.
City code says liquor licenses are good from May 1 to April 30. That means city staff members have already begun processing license renewals, including the collection of fees.
City Administrator Brian Townsend said tavern owners are working under business plans that assume their licenses will be renewed for another year absent a cause to revoke them. Townsend advised any changes aldermen would like to make should wait until May 2014.
Aldermen all agreed they don't want to wait that long unless a legal opinion tells them delaying the renewal of liquor licenses opens the door to a slew of lawsuits. Alderman Jim Martin said if the city's attorney does express concerns, he will push for an immediate reduction in operating hours that would close all taverns by 1 a.m.
City staff members will report back to aldermen about any legal problems in time for a committee meeting next Monday.