Steeper fines are appropriate

By Walt Braun

Issues before the Manhattan City Commission don’t get much clearer, nor the decisions much more obvious, than those pertaining to enforcement of overcrowding laws at taverns in the city, especially Aggieville.

Commissioners this evening should adopt the recommendations of city staff, which stemmed in large part from the work of the Aggieville Safety Committee. Those recommendations call for allowing officials to close a bar for up to 24 hours after an incident of overcrowding; giving Riley County Police Department officers the authority to enforce overcrowding violations; increasing fines for violations, and suspending or revoking a drinking establishment’s license for repeat offenses.

The matter arises because more than a dozen Aggieville taverns exceeded their lawful occupancy — in some cases dramatically — on Fake Patty’s Day in March 2011. Three taverns had more then twice the number of occupants and one of those contained more than three times the allowed number of patrons. That’s inexcusable.

It might be profitable for the establishments but it creates a number of safety hazards. It isn’t difficult, for instance, to imagine panic in a packed bar compounding a tragedy in the event of a fire.

Present ordinance provides for fines, but experience has proven their ineffectiveness; the maximum fine of $500 doesn’t sting much when overcrowding boosts profits.

The proposal to change the fines to a range of $500 to $1,500 on first offense; $1,000 to $2,500 for a second offense within a year, and $1,500 to $2,500 for three offenses within three years is reasonable, especially given that $1,500 is the maximum allowed under a Class A misdemeanor.

To those who argue that the proposed fines could hurt smaller bars more than they would larger ones, we agree. We would add, however, that not only should controlling the number of patrons in a smaller bar be less burdensome, but if proprietors and their employees of bars large and small simply follow the law, they needn’t worry about the fines.

In addition, a drinking establishment in Aggieville or elsewhere in Manhattan should be subject to closure for 24 hours under certain circumstances — though those circumstances should involve genuine risks to public safety. Moreover, it should be subject to suspension or loss of its alcohol license if it demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to comply with occupancy regulations.

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