City looks at downtown safety issues

Stricter fines are on tap for people illegally carrying guns downtown, but a new city system to license bars and other entertainment businesses is not – at least not yet.

City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting unanimously approved an ordinance that will add significant jail time for people who illegally carry weapons near a bar. That ordinance was widely praised by bar and club owners, but a new entertainment licensing system was as popular as flat beer.

Commissioners said they wanted to put the entertainment licensing idea on hold until they could have formal meetings with representatives of the bar and entertainment industry. A meeting date will be set later by city staff.

The licensing system, as currently proposed, would allow the city to revoke an entertainment license for a variety of issues including noise problems, an accumulation of trash or litter in the surrounding area, or an increase in criminal activity within the vicinity of the bar or club by patrons who are leaving or entering the establishment.

Seven members of the public – most with ties to the bar industry – spoke against the idea of a new licensing system. No one from the public spoke in favor of it.

Those speaking against it included Dennis Steffes, owner of the Last Call, a downtown nightclub where several shots were fired last year. The club at 729 N.H. has been accused of attracting patrons who bring guns into downtown.

Steffes told commissioners the licensing idea was an attempt to punish businesses for the actions of individuals. “You don’t close a bank for having armed robberies,” Steffes said. “You don’t close a gas station for having too many drive-offs. You don’t fire a police officer for having too many speeders in his jurisdiction. But you want to close entertainment venues simply for working with what society gives us to work with.”

Several bar owners said they would like to see more police presence downtown. Some suggested using video cameras to film activity in problem parking lots, or parking retired police cars in those lots to provide the sense of a police presence. Commissioners also said they were exploring the use of the state’s nuisance law, which has been used in Topeka to close problem businesses.

On the gun issue, commissioners on a 5-0 vote approved changes to an existing ordinance that makes it illegal to carry a weapon within 200 feet of a drinking establishment unless a person has a concealed-carry permit or meets several other specific exceptions.

The changes to the ordinance raise the minimum jail time from zero days to 30 days for a first-time offender, 90 days for a two-time offender and 180 days for a three-time offender.