Any person leaving a licensed bar or restaurant carrying an open container of alcohol in Fort Atkinson will now be violating a local ordinance.

A fourth and final reading of an ordinance amendment to that effect was approved unanimously by city council members Tuesday night.

The change also makes it unlawful for any license-holder to permit any person to leave the licensed premise with an open container of alcohol.

City council members took that action after seeking more clarification, and allowing lingering questions by bar and restaurant owners pertaining to the amendment answered.

City Manager Rebecca Houseman LeMire said that throughout the summer, the ordinance committee and city council have reviewed several ordinance amendments recommended by city staff.

“The series of alcohol-related ordinances were proposed with the intent of providing the (Fort Atkinson) Police Department with additional tools to address some concerns with the open consumption of alcohol on city sidewalks, streets, parks and the Riverwalk,” LeMire said. “The ordinance prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in parks when they are closed, and the ordinance prohibiting urination and defecation in public places were enacted on July 6, 2021.”

The ordinance prohibiting the open consumption of alcohol on streets, sidewalks and the Riverwalk, however, has been tabled and will return to the ordinance committee for further discussion in August, she noted.

“The remaining ordinance proposed by city staff (approved Tuesday) is an amendment to a section of the City of Fort Atkinson municipal code,” LeMire stated. “This amendment makes it unlawful for any license-holder to permit any person to leave the licensed premise with an open container of alcohol.”

License-holders, she noted, already are responsible for ensuring that patrons do not leave the premise with an open container of alcohol.

“Class B and Class C licenses require that any sale of alcohol for consumption off-premise, when permitted by local ordinance, must be sealed, per Wisconsin Statutes,” LeMire indicated. “If a license-holder is found to have violated this, the license to sell alcohol may be suspended or revoked by the city. As such, the license-holder already has the responsibility to ensure that patrons do not leave the licensed premise with open alcohol.”

City staff, she said, had recommended that the council adopt the local ordinance amendment mirroring the existing state statute to keep local control over enforcement and adjudication of the violation.

The ordinance changes are not expected to impact the city financially.

City Attorney David Westrick and all city department heads had reviewed the proposed ordinance, and pertinent feedback was incorporated.

The ordinance committee reviewed the draft at its May 18 meeting, and city council members reviewed the ordinance change at their June 1 and 15, and July 6 meetings.

On Tuesday, Adrian Bump, Fort Atkinson chief of police, said the goal of the series of ordinance amendments is to improve the quality of life for city residents, visitors and property owners by addressing a major issue impacting the community.

“We are looking to reduce public intoxication, littering, public urination and other disorderly-related issues,” Bump emphasized. “The new ordinances will allow officers the ability to address issues in a more well-rounded-manner through visibility, education and enforcement. It will also motivate bar owners and employees to be more vigilant and active into the prevention and reduction of open alcohol from leaving their establishments.”

He explained the importance of adopting an ordinance like this that already is a state law.

“We want to have a more well-rounded set of ordinances that allows our officers to address issues locally so they go before our municipal judge and not before a circuit court judge,” Bump said. “In adopting this ordinance, you take a criminal law and make it an ordinance.

“Therefore, if we do have to enforce this law, it’s not a criminal forfeiture or a violation of criminal law — it becomes a violation of city ordinance, which is a lot lower of a standard and a lot lower of a violation, and it’s better for the business, and it’s better for our approach and our community policing,” he added.

The police chief said he hopes the city would view the ordinance from a different perspective that “takes away your nervousness of adopting” it.

“It is something our officers can already enforce, but we don’t have the ability to enforce it at a municipal ordinance level, but only at a state level right now,” Bump noted.

Council member Megan Hartwick, who helped move the ordinance amendment to a fourth reading, thanked Bump for his patience while getting it approved.

“This was certainly something that I got a lot of public feedback on, but something that I also sought feedback on because I wanted to get an understanding of how bar and restaurant owners were looking at this and what their concerns were,” Hartwick said. “And certainly after having some of those follow-up conversations with the further clarification and explanations that you gave at our last council meeting, they were much different conversations by the end of those talks.

“So, I appreciate you taking the time to give probably lengthier explanations than you had initially planned on giving, but I certainly feel like the conversations and the feedback that I was getting are coming from a much different place now than they were initially when this information was put out,” she added. “So I appreciate you being patient with that process and sharing the detailed feedback that you have.”

Council member Bruce Johnson asked the chief if a bar owner could be ticketed for a violation, even if they were not complicit in the act.

The police chief said bar or restaurant owners would have to knowingly allow a patron to leave their licensed premises with an open container of alcohol for a violation to occur.

“So, it’s not something where we (officers) would go back to them if someone snuck it (container) out,” Bump said. “Not only does it have to be more of an overt act, or an act of ignoring the problem and not addressing it. But also don’t lose sight of the fact that our officers use discretion in all that we do.”

In fact, he said, his officers view the situation from multiple perspectives.

“And our goal is not to go after our establishment owners,” Bump insisted. “We (police) really rely on that positive relationship in so many things that we do when they’re involved with a call for service that we have.”

It’s not the police department’s intent, he said, to “proactively go out and look for this violation so we can address it — it’s a matter of having the ability to address it when it comes to our attention.”

Therefore, the chief said he sees his police officers issuing lots of warnings first, like they currently do.

“We do bar checks sporadically year-round, and sometimes we do run into violations that are on the fault of the bar or restaurant,” Bump stated. “Since I’ve been here, the last seven years we have not written citations to bartenders or owners for these violations.

“We address it, we alter the behavior immediately and then we move on with our day,” he continued, “because we want to maintain that positive relationship that we have.”

But, if officers ever encounter a problem that’s continuous, and their efforts to educate and reduce the behavior is not working, they “need to be able to step forward with enforcement action, and that’s really our goal.”

Council member Mason Becker appreciated the clarifications that the police chief offered and said that licensed establishments can “rest assured” that the ordinance change is a good thing.

“I think municipal judges are going to have a little bit more leeway, and they’re going to be able to recognize — not that I think this will happen, but—if the police department were to be misapplying the law, or if the judge felt that they (officers) were being overly punitive towards a local establishment,” Becker said. “A local judge is going to have a lot more leeway in determining discretion there versus a county judge.

“I think this makes sense, and it’s state statute anyway,” he added. “So, I’m supportive of this ordinance.”

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