Bars have little reason to gripe

By Walt Braun

Pity the poor Aggieville tavern owners. They’re being picked on and have lost trust in the police who insist on enforcing that pesky occupancy ordinance.

Trust and enforcement took center stage at the Manhattan City Commission meeting Tuesday because many, if not most, bars in Aggieville have ignored longstanding occupancy regulations. Egregious abuses during Fake Patty’s Day last year were the catalyst for strengthening the ordinance, but the problem is not a new one. Nor, as Riley County Police Department Director Brad Schoen and Ryan Alms, a fire marshal, said, has overcrowding been limited to Fake Patty’s Day. It’s occurred on weekends and some weeknights as well.

For too long the city and the police department trusted Aggieville tavern owners to comply with the occupancy ordinance. Yet last Fake Patty’s Day, more than a dozen taverns demonstrated that they couldn’t be trusted.  Three taverns had twice the allowed number of patrons, and one had three times the allowed number.

In our view, the ordinance that the commission approved on first reading leaves tavern owners little to complain about. Commissioners struck a couple of reasonable provisions: They decided that bars won’t be closed for up to 24 hours after an occupancy violation, and that overcrowding won’t be a Class A misdemeanor, which would have meant minimum fines of $500. If bars watered down their beer as much as this proposed ordinance has been watered down, overcrowding wouldn’t be a problem.

The only significant change to the ordinance is that in addition to fire department personnel, police officers will be authorized to issue citations for overcrowding. That’s reasonable; the RCPD already has a presence in Aggieville and is in the business of law enforcement.

It’s unfortunate that the commission vote wasn’t unanimous; City Commissioners John Matta and Loren Pepperd objected. It’s also unfortunate that Commissioner Pepperd seems more concerned about police power in Aggieville than he is with the threat to safety inherent in overcrowding or, for that matter, with simple respect for the law.

His dismay that the City Commission would take the subject up on the night of a K-State basketball game showed an appalling lack of priorities. The commission has met on Tuesday evenings since long before K-State’s basketball players and the overwhelming majority of Aggieville’s bar patrons were born.

We are a little impressed — but only a little —that since this issue surfaced, compliance with the overcrowding ordinance in Aggieville has improved. We credit the better compliance at least in part to the threat of serious sanctions.

As for the tavern owners’ request that the ordinance not be rushed and that they have a chance to deal with overcrowding without further government regulation, that’s laughable. They’ve had their chance.

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