After discarding every loophole it could imagine the Town Council reluctantly suspended The Virginian’s liquor license for 120 days as penalty for repeatedly selling alcohol to minors in recent months.
Despite councilors’ anxiety over cutting off the business’ main revenue stream, they decided they had only one option under the law.
Their hesitation revealed a deeper problem: an ordinance that leaves little flexibility in how elected officials mete out punishment to businesses that fail three times in a year to check a customer’s ID before serving them.
“We should feel comfortable with enforcing it and feel good about it, and so far we have not,” Mayor Pete Muldoon said. “That tells me that we could probably do better.”
Monday’s discussion was the second, after the council postponed its decision two weeks ago. The first time around councilors spent a solid hour searching for ways to let The Virginian off the hook. Councilor Arne Jorgensen said he left that meeting with a bad taste in his mouth.
“I felt like I was working too hard to find a way out,” he said, “when in reality this is supposed to hurt.”
But the issue was complicated by the fact that the failed compliance checks — one in August and two in December — all took place in The Virginian’s liquor store, not the more popular and more profitable saloon. The problem is that both are registered under the same license.
Virginian representatives sought leniency, pleading with the council to separate the offending retail branch and spare the compliant bar. Town Attorney Audrey Cohen-Davis said there is nothing in the law that grants the council authority to split the two, but also no rule against it.
Nevertheless, without a precedent the elected officials turned to the one place where they do have discretion: timing. Seeing no way out of the 120-day suspension they delayed it until March 25, after the Hill Climb and ’49er Ball, two biggest events of the season for The Virginian.
But even that didn’t ease their minds.
“Yuck,” Councilor Jonathan Schechter said. “There’s really no good decision here. People are going to get hurt one way or the other, and that’s tremendously unfortunate.
“But we do have our hands tied pretty tightly, and I don’t see any way around that without putting ourselves and the legal system through some serious contortions.”
Muldoon argued the ordinance governing license suspensions misses the root of the problem: preventing people under 21 from consuming alcohol. He thought that purpose would be better served by additional compliance checks and more training for alcohol providers.
Muldoon suggested the council revisit the law — passed in May 2017 in an effort to crack down on underage drinking — to achieve its intent and to make it more adaptable to tricky situations like The Virginian’s.
It was the law’s second test. The first came in February 2018, when the council suspended Pizzeria Caldera’s liquor license after it failed three compliance checks over a 10-month period.