Effort to amend closure rules hits a snag

By Burk Krohe

City commissioners started Tuesday’s special meeting with the goal of vetting proposed changes to the fire code. But that discussion, a response to over-crowding in taverns on Fake Patty’s Day, was sidetracked by a more general discussion of the event itself. Commissioners ultimately decided to table the proposed changes.

The amendments would have given officials the discretion to close a bar for up to 24 hours if it was found to be overcrowded, and also would have given Riley County Police Department officers enforcement authority. That authority presently rests with the Manhattan Fire Department. It also would have raised the minimum fine for overcrowding to $500 (the current maximum fine) and set the maximum fine at $2,500. Finally it would have allowed the city to pursue suspension or revocation of a bar’s liquor license after repeat offenses. Violations could also have been punishable by up to one year in jail.

Assistant city manager Lauren Palmer said since September, the fire department has adopted a “no tolerance” policy toward overcrowding, citing bars on the spot for first-time overcrowding offenses. Commissioner Loren Pepperd said those measures have “cleaned up the place,” pointing to the fact that there have only been three citations since then.

“We’ve increased the amount of time we’ve spent down there, too,” Fire Marshal Ryan Almes said. “We have seen success, we think, since that time period.”

Pepperd’s fellow commissioners were also pleased with the MFD’s proactive approach. However, commissioners showed trepidation toward the ordinance changes.

They also seemed unclear about the current process for emptying an overcrowded bar and inquired whether the MFD has the authority to clear a bar for 24 hours. Almes said MFD doesn’t think it has the authority to do so the way the ordinance is written. He said as it stands, fire officials will shut down a bar and move people out until it is at its legal occupancy.

“It doesn’t actually say we can stop them for a period of time after that,” Almes said.

Commissioner Wynn Butler said he was in favor of a minimum fine but was also concerned about the “unintended consequences” of closing a bar for 24 hours. Butler said it could create a ripple effect where bar patrons move to another bar, creating a new overcrowding situation, or move out into the neighborhoods surrounding Aggieville.

“If you change the fines, they could wind up with some hefty fines if they get ticketed two or three times in one night and that’s just as damaging as closing them down for 24 hours,” Butler said.

He added that he didn’t “particularly like” that violations have the potential for jail time.

Katie Jackson, assistant city attorney, said that in order for the suggested fines to be put in place, the overcrowding must be classified as a class A misdemeanor, which includes possible jail time.

Aggieville bar owners said MFD’s “no tolerance” policy has been effective without the changes, which they feel will put too much power in the hands of the RCPD.

Rob Goode, of So Long Saloon in Aggieville, said it’s evident that bar owners there have “heeded the warning” and are taking overcrowding seriously. Goode noted the low amount of overcrowding citations since September.

“I consider it a privilege to do business in Aggieville and I take great pride in the businesses and property in Aggieville,” Goode said. “For that reason, it makes my stomach turn a little bit whenever I hear comments coming out of the police department that the word Aggieville is used almost as a four-letter word.”

Goode said the current relationship between Aggieville and the RCPD has seen better days, which is why he is wary of giving RCPD enforcement power through the ordinance changes.

“As a business owner in Aggieville I feel like there’s a target on my back,” Goode said.

Rusty Wilson, of Kite’s in Aggieville, echoed Goode’s comments.

“Giving the police this type of authority frightens me,” Wilson said. “It would be detrimental to someone in business in Aggieville.”

Wilson pleaded for the city not to fight Fake Patty’s Day, the source of the overcrowding debate, but to embrace it. He raised the idea of making it a controlled event, which has been periodically suggested in recent years, with food, tents and restricted access points.

He said easy access to food and water would be beneficial to patrons who have been drinking all day. Wilson believes it would help the overcrowding by dispersing some of the crowd outside, which, in turn, makes the bars more profitable by allowing better flow to order drinks.

Billy Porter, of Porter’s in Aggieville, said he took the first steps to create a festival-like event, researching costs for insurance and starting the process to create an LLC. But he said the RCPD told him not to “waste his time or effort.” Porter perceived it as the RCPD being uncooperative.

Brad Schoen, RCPD director, disagreed with that assessment. “I have never been opposed to the festival concept,” Schoen said.

Schoen said he felt it would be difficult to get a special event permit with alcohol — which would allow alcohol outside of the bars necessary for a festival-like event — without the support of every business in Aggieville. He said he had not seen 100 percent support and was skeptical whether it could be found in time for Fake Patty’s Day.

“My view was, and still remains, if we can’t get everyone on board to do that, I can’t recommend that in good conscience,” Schoen said.

Porter said he has most of the businesses on board, but not all of them. 

However, several residents who live near Aggieville asked commissioners not to downplay the effect Fake Patty’s Day has on the community. They described not feeling safe in their own neighborhoods, saying overcrowding ordinances or a festival atmosphere will do nothing to stop house parties with copious underage drinking.

“We have a Fake Patty’s Day problem and it’s not going to go away on it’s own,” Jeff Koenig, of Big Poppi Bicycle Co. in Aggieville said.

Koenig said most of the people causing the problems aren’t in Aggieville—they are in the areas around Aggieville.

“The folks who are causing the problems in the neighborhoods never intended to step foot in Aggieville—they’re underage,” Koenig said. “They’re conducting underage house parties, getting blitzed and doing whatever they want.”

Pepperd sympathized with Koenig but said it’s hard to shut down an event with no official sponsor spread through social media.

Commissioners said they would like to see the city, in cooperation with county officials, the RCPD and the Aggieville Business Association, pursue steps to create a festival-like event. They felt it would create a more manageable situation for all parties involved.

Palmer noted it would be difficult with such a short lead time. She said a special event with alcohol permit needs to be submitted 45 days in advance of the event. Mayor Jim Sherow advised the city to meet with the ABA, an official from the county and Schoen to see what could be done by the next legislative meeting in two weeks. Sherow said success may be unlikely, but the city must try.

With the commissioners in agreement, they tabled the ordinance changes unanimously. Commissioners said if an agreement on the festival can’t be made in time for this year’s occurrence, it could be looked at for 2013 and MFD could continue its current policy of zero tolerance for this year’s event.

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