State indicates willingness to help Lawrence with problems at bars

Commissioners to consider their own licensing system tonight

Two options up for discussion at meeting

Commissioners will have two options on their agenda tonight to add new regulations for Lawrence bars and clubs. Both options previously have been discussed.

One option is to require bars and clubs to receive a special-use permit in order to operate. This is the same type of permit that the city requires for other intensive uses, such as homeless shelters.

The second option is an “entertainment venue license.” It would apply not only to bars and clubs but also places such as movie theaters and private venues that host live concerts. Under the new system, the city could revoke a business’ entertainment license if the business is creating a public safety hazard.

In response to past concerns, city staff members have added more details about when a license could be revoked. For example, in addition to violence that occurs inside a bar, the city also can look at violence caused by bar patrons within 500 feet of the bar. The ordinance also spells out what type of crimes and how many crimes need to be associated with a business before it can have its license revoked.

For example, if someone is murdered outside a club, that one incident would be enough to revoke the club’s license. But it would take 10 weapons violations in a 365-day period to revoke a license.

The state regulator who oversees the bar and liquor industry said Monday that he’s willing to work with Lawrence leaders to deal with problem bars if city officials are willing to initiate the process.

But city commissioners at tonight’s meeting are looking into creating their own licensing system that would make Lawrence less reliant on the state to deal with problems related to violence surrounding drinking establishments.

“I am convinced something needs to be done,” said City Commissioner Rob Chestnut. “I think getting a handle on downtown safety is one of the top two or three issues that we have to deal with.”

For months, city staff members have said that means the city needs to create its own regulations for bars, drinking establishments and other entertainment venues. City Manager David Corliss has told commissioners that previous efforts to get the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control division to address problems at several bars has been unsuccessful because ABC leaders said they would not take into account actions by bar patrons that happened immediately outside of the bar, such as in a city parking lot.

But Tom Groneman, director of the ABC, said Monday that may be a misinterpretation on the city’s part.

“I’ve never said that we’re not interested in what is going on outside of the four walls,” Groneman said. “If asked, we would work with the city to alleviate whatever problems they may be having.”

The debate comes after several high-profile incidents of violence at or near downtown bars in 2006. One man was shot and killed, and another was seriously wounded outside the Granada. Seven shots were fired inside the downtown club Last Call in May 2006, and police leaders reported 21 weapons violations in downtown from June 2005 to June 2007.

Corliss, though, said he has asked Groneman for help in the past. He produced a letter dated Jan. 25 that was sent to Groneman asking about standards the division uses to revoke a club’s liquor license. A Feb. 2 letter from an ABC attorney responding to Corliss indicated that the department would not consider violations by patrons outside a bar or club.

But Groneman said there are other ways the city could ask ABC to become involved. For example, after seven shots were fired inside Last Call in May 2006, the club’s liquor license was up for its annual renewal in October 2006. At that time, the city could have asked ABC to conduct a hearing on the license renewal. At that hearing the city could have presented evidence as to why the club should not be granted a license. Groneman said the presence of weapons at the bar was the type of issue that he could consider when deciding whether to renew a liquor license.

Groneman said the city could ask for such a hearing for any drinking establishment in the city, but has not done so. He said other cities have asked for such hearings to help resolve issues.

“The hearings aren’t used a lot, but the two or three times that I’ve heard such hearings they generally have caused the city and the license holder to talk about what issues they have, and the issues have been resolved.”

When asked why the city didn’t request a hearing on Last Call – which at the time had been in the news for several weapons violations near the club – Corliss said he did not know.

He also said he was not sure whether the city would seek to have a hearing for Last Call or any other club in the future.

“When I read their letter, it looks like it is just going to be a paper chase, and this community deserves more than that,” Corliss said.

Phil Bradley, executive director of the Kansas Licensed Beverage Association, said several of his members were disappointed that the city has not done more to work with existing state regulations before attempting to create a new set of local regulations.

Bradley said his members were concerned that a new local licensing system would place too much power to close a business in the hands of local politicians. Bradley said his members also aren’t convinced that violence problems around bars are severe enough to warrant new regulations. Bradley said police officers seem to have increased their presence around bars, and the city adopted new regulations that increase the penalty for carrying a weapon near a bar.

“These new regulations would single out a particular type of business without any solid evidence that those businesses are the major contributors to the problem, or even that the problem still exists,” Bradley said.

But Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson – who also is a downtown resident – said he hadn’t seen any significant signs of improvement in 2007. He also said he would welcome new regulations to deal with bars and clubs because some state laws are “pretty narrowly defined.”

“I think downtown safety is something that has to be addressed,” Branson said. “I think we probably have to find some creative ways to address it.”