No one in Fort Atkinson would be able to carry an open container of alcohol out of a business under an ordinance that took another step forward Tuesday night.
City council members moved the measure to a fourth reading to allow for more clarification, and to get lingering questions by bar owners and community members pertaining to the change answered.
This drafted ordinance amendment is one of four open intoxication/alcohol-related ordinance updates in the city.
Adrian Bump, Fort Atkinson chief of police, told the council one way to determine needs as related to ordinances is to look to the officers on the street who utilize and apply local ordinances in the completion of their work.
“Officers continually look to positively impact the quality of life and safety of the community through visibility, education and enforcement,” Bump said. “While identifying trends and problems, officers in our city have continually brought forward issues specifically related to their inability to reduce public intoxication and open intoxicants, and the associated misbehaviors, through existing ordinance enforcement.
“Likewise, officers desire to reduce the number of open intoxicants on our streets that are coming from inside our bars or from people who travel to our parks and Riverwalk as a drinking destination,” he added.
The ordinance updates, Bump said, are “focused on reducing disorderly subjects, public intoxication, loud noise complaints, public urination, littering, property damage and fighting that have begun to plague our community’s downtown, parks and even our cherished Riverwalk.
“The requested changes also work to improve the overall perception of safety for people who enjoy the assets our community has to offer,” he added.
The ordinances, the chief said, all work together in a multi-tier approach to address the issues commonly encountered by police officers.
The first ordinance amendment makes it unlawful for any license-holder to permit any person to leave the licensed premise with an open container of alcohol.
The second change makes it unlawful — and a disorderly conduct — for any person to defecate or urinate outside of a designated facility.
The third amendment makes it unlawful to possess an open alcohol container on any public street, sidewalk or public right-of-way unless the city council has granted the appropriate permit or license.
The fourth ordinance change makes it unlawful to drink or possess alcohol in city parks when closed, unless permitted through an authorized event.
“The new ordinances will allow officers the ability to address issues in a more well-rounded manner through visibility, education and enforcement,” Bump emphasized. “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.”
On Tuesday, regarding the first ordinance amendment, Michelle Ebbert, city clerk/treasurer/finance director, clarified where persons can and cannot consume alcohol.
“Let’s say you are purchasing a drink at the (American) Legion and you’re staying on their premise description, where alcohol can be sold, stored and consumed,” Ebbert said. “If you buy a drink and you stay on their property, my understanding is you’ll be OK with that. But the second you leave a property, that’s where the issue stands with having open intoxicants.”
City Manager Rebecca Houseman LeMire noted that this allowance already is state statute.
“It is a state statute that you cannot leave a licensed premise with an alcoholic beverage,” LeMire said. “So, this ordinance would make it a local ordinance violation that could be enforced locally.”
Police chief Bump said the Fort Atkinson Police Department currently has the ability to enforce this law at a state level.
“That means that if an officer were to take law enforcement action against a location, it would be a state offense and not an ordinance violation,” Bump said. “They (license-holder) would actually be issued a criminal forfeiture or it could be a misdemeanor, and it would go through the circuit court.”
Adopting the ordinance, he said, would give the local municipal court the ability to handle and oversee that violation.
“Right now, we (police) would have to go through to the district attorney, through circuit court for a violation,” Bump added. “That’s our only option.”
But as a local ordinance violation, instead of a criminal forfeiture or criminal offense, he said, “it allows our officers better discretion and it’s less of a penalty against the business. It’s better for the business to have an ordinance violation than to have a criminal violation.”
Council member Megan Hartwick said these ordinance amendments have generated, by far, the most public feedback and comments she has received on any issue in her short tenure on city council.
“Based on some of those conversations that I’ve had and some existing questions that have come my way,” she said, “(and) knowing that we, at least, potentially have an option, I would like to see this be something that we get a little bit more information and feedback on before our council would choose to make a vote on this.”
Hartwick appealed for some additional time to impart more clarification to local bar owners “who just want to have a better understanding of what the potential impacts of this is for them.”
Bump said the potential impact to license-holders is that “instead of being charged criminally, and being charged through the circuit court, if they violated this law and the officer chose to take legal action against them — because officers use discretion — they would be issued a local ordinance citation which would be a fine and they would be allowed to go to municipal court in our city, before our municipal judge, to contest the citation.”
Hartwick asked the police chief how many state offenses Fort Atkinson bar owners have received in the last year and was told “Zero.”
“It’s not that there isn’t an issue — there is an extreme issue,” Bump responded. “We have people leaving establishments every single night, walking and leaving the locations.
“Where it comes into play is that we are not taking enforcement action against our businesses because we are a local police department that takes pride in our businesses, and the last thing we want to do is hold criminal charges against them,” he added. “So, we could continue to do nothing and see no strong benefit to improving the quality of life in the city and the chronic nuisance issues we’re seeing, or we can be a little bit more hard-nosed and then start taking criminal action against our bars and our bartenders and our bar owners — and that’s what we don’t want to do.”
Police now have talked with and warned bar owners about the problem, Bump said, “but you can only warn someone so many times before it just becomes a joke.”
And the last thing police want to do, he said, is push away business.
“We have some great bars, some great restaurants (in Fort Atkinson) that rely on the sale of alcohol,” Bump said. “And if we can’t get them motivated to help this (problem) to stop happening, then things will just not get better.”
Hartwick summarized the feedback she received from some owners of local bars and restaurants, saying “their concern is that all of a sudden there will be a big push to start punishing bars with people leaving.”
She said one bar owner reached out to her, saying “we do everything we can, but when we’re busy and short-staffed we can’t control if someone walks out our front door with a bottle of beer and we don’t see that.”
The chief of police said that’s why it is critical to adopt all of the ordinances combined “because they all work together.”
“We would never go after a situation by only coming up with one solution, or one angle to address it,” Bump stated. “These ordinances all work together and give the officers the tools that they need to use their discretion and their enforcement with multiple ways to attack it.”
Just because an ordinance is put in place, he said, doesn’t mean officers are going to start issuing “tons and tons of tickets for that violation.”
The chief said a bar owner cannot be held 100 percent liable and be able to stop every single person violating the ordinance.
“People are going to sneak it (alcohol) out,” Bump said. “But that’s why we need to have more than one approach like I have laid out for you with these four ordinances working together.”
Council member Mason Becker said he appreciated the police trying to take “a holistic approach” to the issue, and asked Bump if patrol officers would be sitting in parking lots outside taverns, visually checking for patrons leaving with open containers of alcohol.
“It’s not our goal to proactively go after people,” Bump insisted. “It is our goal to have the tools available to us, so when we have these violations occur before us, or when people’s behavior draws our attention to them, that we can take appropriate action.
“We really have to choose our battles in everything we do on the street because we’re being pulled in different directions every single shift,” he added. “And you really have to address the things that are important.”
The ordinance, if enacted, would “not infringe whatsoever” upon the sale of sealed containers of alcohol as allowed under state law, the police chief emphasized.
Currently, he said, Fort Atkinson has responsible tavern owners and operators, and no troubled restaurant or bar that police constantly are dealing with.
“We (police) have a strong vested interest in maintaining a positive relationship with all of our businesses, but especially our establishments,” Bump said. “There are lots of times where we need their teamwork in addressing things that happen to people that are their customers. And the more of a resource they are to us, the better chance we have of solving crimes and situations of victimization that happen to customers that frequent their businesses.”
Council President Chris Scherer said, “I do think we owe it to our constituents and our local business owners to at least inform them … of what the implications (of the ordinance amendment) are.”
Becker concurred, saying “Chief Bump’s reasoning and his explanations tonight have been very, very thorough and very sound. People should be reassured that our police department is operating in good faith and we’re trying to walk along with them in that spirit.”
Related ordinance updatesAlso Tuesday, council members tabled the ordinance amendment relating to alcohol prohibitions on streets and sidewalks to allow city staff to further study the issue.
Becker said he understands prohibiting people from leaving taverns and bars with an open alcohol container and going off premises but expressed reservation on this change from a personal freedom standpoint.
“I have a little hard time saying why we should prohibit somebody from leaving their house and going for a walk down the sidewalk with an open can of beer or something,” Becker said. “I understand there’s an enforcement argument to be made on this, but I had a lot of people raise that question with me and I had a hard time justifying that one.”
Hartwick said she received similar feedback from community members, the tone of which was law enforcement overreach.
“It seemed like an overregulation that would punish a lot of people for perhaps the misbehavior or misconduct of the few — that was kind of the common thread of feedback that I received,” she said.
Scherer asked the police chief if there was a specific area in the city where this ordinance would be most applicable.
“Our downtown district, our Riverwalk area would be the most common places where this violation, or this potential ordinance would make the most positive impact,” Bump answered.
Becker acknowledged that there have been violations related to a group loitering, getting openly intoxicated and causing disturbances in the Riverwalk area last summer.
“We already do prohibit alcohol consumption in two parks here in town that are a little bit more youth-oriented,” Becker said, “and I could see crafting something to, perhaps, prohibit alcohol consumption on the Riverwalk if that’s a direction we want to go.
“But, covering the whole city with this (ordinance) when I don’t get the sense that it’s a huge problem or something that residents in the city are necessarily asking for — that I have to be a little bit more cautious with,” he added.
Council member Bruce Johnson wanted city officials to “make sure we keep distinguishing between are we chasing disorderly conduct or are we chasing having a beer?”
“The beer incites the disorderly conduct, but we’re already set up for that,” he said. “But I know a lot of fishermen. There’s a lot of people who like to fish on the river. Are they not going to be able to have a beer and sit next to their fishing pole?”
If the ordinance gets passed, enforcement would be city-wide, on all streets and sidewalks, police chief Bump replied.
Scherer questioned him: “From an enforcement perspective, does it make it more difficult (for police officers) if we would define a district to say this ordinance would apply strictly to downtown and the Riverwalk?”
“Probably not, if we found a way to well-define it (a district) — if it was black and white,” Bump stated. “I don’t think it would be a hindrance, just as long as it’s not vague.”
Hartwick felt having a defined district where alcohol is prohibited would be something worthwhile to explore.
Becker concluded: “Kind of in that spirit, I think maybe this could be examined a little bit more and crafted in a way that’s a little bit more targeted.”
Lastly, the council unanimously adopted the ordinance amendment making it unlawful — and a disorderly conduct — for any person to defecate or urinate outside of a designated facility, as well as the ordinance change prohibiting alcohol consumption in city parks after hours.