The Manhattan City Commission passed the first reading of an ordinance Tuesday that will allow the Riley County Police Department to enforce overcrowding violations in local businesses. The decision came on a 3-2 vote that resulted in a “watered down” version of what was initially proposed.
The discussion about overcrowding came to light because of safety concerns during Fake Patty’s Day, an annual, unsponsored drinking event the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day. The ordinance had been tabled due to concerns from commissioners and Aggieville bar owners. In response, the city removed provisions to close bars for up to 24 hours following a violation and for a tiered fine structure. Commissioners amended the ordinance further at the meeting, removing the provision to make an overcrowding citation a class A misdemeanor, which would have made the minimum fine $500 and carried the possibility of a year in jail. The only remaining change was granting the RCPD enforcement power.
Brad Schoen, RCPD director, and Ryan Alms, fire marshal, told commissioners that while Fake Patty’s Day started the discussion, overcrowding has become an issue during weekends and some weekdays as well.
Mayor Jim Sherow and Commissioners Wynn Butler and Rich Jankovich supported the ordinance because they felt it would facilitate public safety through improved compliance. Jerry Snyder, fire chief, said RCPD calls the Manhattan Fire Department down to Aggieville almost every weekend because only fire officials can write overcrowding citations. Snyder said MFD doesn’t have the staff to maintain a constant presence in Aggieville. The supporting commissioners feel the change will greatly aid enforcement of overcrowding by giving MFD the proper level of support.
“It crafts the ordinance in such a fashion that it’s an improvement, and it will accomplish what we want without going overboard,” Butler said.
Commissioners John Matta and Loren Pepperd as well as Aggieville bar owners were unconvinced that such a step was necessary. Matta noted that since the dialogue about safety concerns began, there has been a decline in violations. Snyder confirmed that.
Matta contended the city had not been enforcing the violations and hadn’t been communicating well with Aggieville in the past.
Aggieville bar owners urged commissioners not to rush into the change. They asked for a chance to continue to improve communication with RCPD and find a way to deal with overcrowding other than government regulation.
Rob Goode, of So Long Saloon in Aggieville, said a meeting involving bar owners, the Aggieville Business Association, the city and RCPD held several weeks ago at the request of Sherow was extremely positive. Goode said he could not recall such a meeting taking place in the past.
“To see this ordinance back in front of us, I gotta tell you it’s a little bit of a slap in the face,” Goode said. “We’re trying to do the right thing and move in the right direction.”
Ryan Bramhall, of Tubby’s Sports Bar in Aggieville, said the hesitation among bar owners seems to be due to a lack of trust. Bramhall was concerned about RCPD officers overstepping their bounds.
“We’re just giving another ordinance to create more police power in Aggieville because Aggieville is the only one that’s targeted,” Pepperd said.
He added that the ordinance, particularly scheduling its reading on the night of a K-State basketball game when many Aggieville bar owners would not be able to attend, will do little to garner trust.
“You want to build trust?” Pepperd said sarcastically. “This is a really good way to do it.”
Schoen attempted to ease concerns, explaining that RCPD officers will go through a training program conducted by the MFD.
“We all the time enforce state statutes and city ordinances—misdemeanors, felony offenses, all that—officers exercise discretion over a broad range offenses far more serious than class A misdemeanors,” Schoen said.
Sherow didn’t question bar owners’ and Pepperd’s concerns about trust and communication, but he argued that compliance is the real issue. He said the codes and occupancy capacities are there; it’s a matter of following them.
“What I’m hearing is the trust between RCPD and all those people (ABA and bar owners) is not as strong,” Sherow said. “Even if RCPD has a wonderful relationship and everybody is having a great time because it’s so fine, it doesn’t address the enforcement issue.”