Underage drinking crackdown advances

Published: Friday, January 16, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 9:24 p.m.

Gainesville bars that consistently are caught with underage drinkers came one step closer Thursday night to becoming establishments only for those 21 and older after 9 p.m.

Capt. Lonnie Scott with the Gainesville Police Department said 439 people were arrested in drinking establishments during the first three quarters of 2008 for underage drinking.

“The vast majority of businesses that sell alcoholic beverages adhere to the law,” Scott said. “Those numbers are representative of only a few establishments that repeatedly violate the law … I’m afraid that some of these businesses view this as the cost of doing business. We are left to a point of trying to come up with a different method of dealing with the problem.”

A representative of University of Florida student government spoke against the ordinance, as did a number of younger citizens who were concerned it would drive young students to house parties that are less regulated and less safe.

“The unintended effects of this legislation may prove to be far worse than the current situation,” said Eric Matzner, a 21-year-old economics major at the University of Florida. “This is inherent in trying to curb an activity in which more than half the underage student population participates.”

Bar owners opposed the ordinance as a violation of rights, a killer of economic activity and as a measure that raises the possibility of drawing a lawsuit.

Despite the debate, commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance, taking effect on April 1. There will be one more vote on the ordinance on Feb. 5. Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan was absent Thursday.

Commissioner Jeanna Mastrodicasa said she spearheaded this effort to get Gainesville’s downtown and midtown bar scene under tighter control for safety and economic reasons.

She is also the assistant vice president of student affairs at the University of Florida and said during the meeting that she had procured the support of the presidents of both UF and Santa Fe College.

According to the ordinance, bars with occupancy of less than 201 people would be punished after having five or more prosecuted underage drinking violations in a three-month period. Bars with greater occupancies would be punished after 10 violations.

If this law had been in place during the first three quarters of 2008, at least 11 bars would have been disciplined by the ordinance and in all four quarters of 2007, 13 bars would have been prohibited from allowing underage patrons.

Stephanie Marchman, from the Gainesville City Attorney’s Office, said there are about 400 establishments in the city that are permitted to allow alcohol consumption on their premises. “I think the data is telling,” Marchman said. “I’ve heard some concern about how many establishments this ordinance would cover, and this data shows in 2007 and 2008 about a dozen establishments would have been affected.”

Among those bars, at one time or another in the past two years, would have been Copper Monkey, Gator City and Grog House.

The owner of those three establishments, Robert Zeller, said he was “shocked” by the ordinance. “Now I become the criminal where I was the victim of that fraud,” Zeller said of being punished when a patron uses fake identification. “If someone committed a crime against you, would you find it reasonable to be punished for that crime … and not even have that ability to defend yourselves?”

Commissioner Lauren Poe responded that bar owners are responsible for the activities that occur within their establishments.

Joy Rosean, the general manager of the downtown bars Bentley’s and Whiskey Room, said she opposed the ordinance as something that would significantly harm her businesses.

“Right now we’re in a recession. Anything that pushes bars to have less revenue, you’re going to have a problem,” Rosean said.

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