Lawrence City Commission to discuss penalties for ‘nuisance’ bars

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

The Lawrence City Commission will discuss whether the city should do more to penalize bars where police repeatedly respond to disturbances.

Mayor Leslie Soden requested the discussion, which will take place as part of the commission’s work session Tuesday. Soden said she wants the city to take more action when a bar requires repeated police responses for situations involving firearms, assaults or other serious crimes.

“What I’m looking to do is put more teeth into the local liquor licenses so that we can better handle nuisance bars,” Soden said.

Although the Kansas Alcoholic Beverage Commission issues state liquor licenses, Lawrence businesses that sell alcohol must also obtain a “drinking establishment” license from the city. The city licenses are tied to city zoning and other local regulations, but Soden said she wants the commission to go beyond that.

“We should be able to do more than that,” Soden said. “That seems awful weak to me.”

Soden noted the issue is not new. She said bars such as Club Magic, 804 W. 24th St., and Last Call, 729 New Hampshire St., were examples of businesses that eventually closed after various incidents. Both businesses had shootings in or around the bar that prompted discussions at City Hall, and Soden said she thinks the commission could have gotten a better handle on the situation by withdrawing the local liquor license.

Last Call lost its state liquor license in 2007 over allegations of illegal drug activity occurring inside the club, but for a time operated as a private BYOB club. It closed following a triple shooting. A shooting also occurred near Club Magic in 2013, and two men involved with managing the club were later convicted of crimes relating to interstate prostitution and human trafficking.

According to city code, the City Commission does have the authority to revoke or suspend the local drinking establishment license if it determines the business is a “habitual public nuisance.” Among other requirements, the commission must be able to determine that the bar or club operates in a manner that habitually harms the public health, safety or welfare, and that those incidents can be fairly attributed to the specific business.

The city attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a Journal-World inquiry regarding whether revoking the local drinking establishment license would have bearing on the state liquor license.

Residents can also report complaints to the state or city. A resident can submit a complaint to the Alcoholic Beverage Control division of the Kansas Department of Revenue or the City Attorney’s Office if they believe a drinking establishment or private club is a habitual public nuisance, according to the city’s interim communication manager, Porter Arneill. Arneill said the office receiving the complaint would investigate.

Soden said she thinks the city should be able to withdraw the local liquor licenses if police responses show that a bar threatens the public welfare. She said she sees that as the duty of city government, and she wants Tuesday’s discussion to clarify the process currently in place for dealing with such issues.

“What is the process now and how can we get a better handle on nuisance bars?” Soden said. “Our local liquor license is our biggest leverage that we have.”

In other business, the commission will review a new fund balance policy. Currently, the city’s policy is to maintain a balance in the general fund equivalent to 15 percent to 30 percent of the fund’s annual expenditures. The city is proposing that be changed to 25 percent.

The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.