Lawrence City Commission discusses ‘nuisance’ bars; updates to city’s alcohol codes upcoming

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., Thursday, July 7, 2016

Upcoming changes to city code may help clarify procedures regarding requests for the state to revoke the liquor licenses of local bars.

Although the Kansas Alcoholic Beverage Commission issues state liquor licenses, the city can request a hearing for the state to consider revoking the license of bars that threaten public safety.

Mayor Leslie Soden requested that the commission discuss the city’s role in liquor licenses as part of the commission’s work session Tuesday. Soden said that she wants the city to be able to better handle “nuisance” bars and that she thinks city code should be clearer about what the city can do.

“This is just something ongoing that I feel like we should be looking at,” Soden said.

City Attorney Toni Wheeler said the city can request a hearing to have the state consider suspending or revoking a bar’s liquor license if there are violent crimes in or around the bar or if there is an unreasonable drain on resources to maintain safety. Wheeler said Lawrence was one of the cities that lobbied the state for the ability to request a hearing and, since then, has had some success in such petitions.

Though there is not a written policy, Wheeler said that the city attorney’s and city manager’s offices informally work with the Lawrence Police Department to share information and monitor any significant public health or safety issues in the community. She said any time a problem arises with a bar, the city can petition to the Alcoholic Beverage Commission for a hearing.

“If we believe that an establishment is rising to that, then we usually come to the governing body and request authorization to proceed in that way,” Wheeler said. She noted that the city has to have good reason to make the request and have evidence to present at the hearing.

Wheeler said one instance in which the city took such action was with Last Call, which formerly operated at 729 New Hampshire St.

Last Call lost its state liquor license in 2007 over allegations of illegal drug activity occurring inside the club. At the time, the owner of Last Call accused the city of targeting his business because most of the patrons were black, which the city denied.

Soden said she thinks instead of an informal practice, city code should have a systematic process should a bar require repeated police responses for serious crimes, and make it clear under what circumstances the city will request a hearing with the state. She said having a written policy would help any perceptions that the city is targeting certain establishments.

Lawrence businesses that sell alcohol must also obtain a “drinking establishment” license from the city, but those licenses are limited. The city licenses are tied to city zoning and other local regulations and can be revoked by the commission if a bar is determined to be a “habitual public nuisance.” However, City Clerk Sherri Riedemann told the commission that revoking a city license or finding that a bar is a public nuisance has no impact on the state liquor license.

Wheeler said the city’s code regulating alcohol is in need of some review and that the city will be drafting amendments to ensure the code complies with recent changes to state law and Supreme Court opinions.

Soden said she would like to return to the conversation of a formal policy for handling nuisance bars at that time.

Commissioner Mike Amyx thanked Soden for requesting the discussion.

“I think it’s important that the commission is updated on things we can and can’t do,” Amyx said.

In other business, the commission reviewed 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 commission will vote on whether to adopt the policy at its Sept. 19 meeting.